Blurring the Lines Hurts Journalism
My message has to do with journalism. It has to do with why, according to the polls, we are now down there with the lawyers, the Congress and the child pornographers in the public’s respect and esteem. There’s a long list of reasons, most of them obvious to anyone who has been paying attention. Former New York Times columnist Russell Baker has been paying attention: “Later, in one of those comically solemn conclaves at which journalists ponder the philosophy of their trade and eat high on the expense account, the news industry will struggle to understand the great media meltdown of 1998. If I am asked to contribute a monograph, it will tend toward the theory that something akin to road rage occurred in the Washington press corps. This produced actions that were variously foolish, shameful, dangerous to American democracy, and destructive for the reputation of the news industry.”
My monograph would begin with the additional conclusion that journalism, as practiced by some, has become akin to professional wrestling—something to watch rather than to believe. One of the reasons is the savagery that’s become part and parcel of the so-called new journalism. It is marked by predatory stake-outs, brutally coarse invasions of privacy, talk show shouting and violence, no-source reporting, and other popular techniques. Another reason is something I call the new arrogance. The fact that some in my line of work have developed an approach in words, sneers and body language that says loud and clear: Only the journalists of America are pure enough to judge others. And judge we must. Because God really did die in the 1960’s, and the journalists of America must take up the slack because there are no others who can, no others out there who are pure enough to do it.
Another reason could be our new problems with entertainment. Garrison Keillor spoke of it a couple of years ago at a big dinner of radio-TV journalists and semi-journalists. He warned about the danger of trying to be fascinating rather than just informing. And trying to be fascinating has resulted in some confusing personnel moves.
Jim Squires, former editor of The Chicago Tribune, wrote about this recently: “News events spawn new celebrities, who show up at a later event with a microphone, pretending to practice the craft of journalism. Actors, comedians, politicians, lawyers, infamous criminals—and some who fit all five categories—now regularly masquerade as reporters on newscasts and talk shows. Watergate burglar G. Gordon Liddy and Clinton White House political adviser George Stephanopoulos are both now widely considered to be journalists. Former Nixon speechwriter Patrick Buchanan and civil rights activist Jesse Jackson go from being story subject one month to storyteller the next. Lawyer Johnnie Cochran may be on television standing beside a famous defendant one day and on another interviewing the same defendant from behind an anchor desk. Worse, many of the people signing the paychecks of those pretenders and making the programming decisions can’t see any difference between real news and celebrity news programming.
On my list, the most serious reason for the credibility problem is the blurring of the lines among the three basic types of serious journalism: straight reporting, analysis and opinion. Here, folks, is what happened; here, now, is what it means; and here, now, is what we, or I, think about it. When I began in this business more than 30 years ago, each “here” was a very separate function. Reporting was done by reporters; analyzing by carefully labeled and credentialed analysts, and the “we” or “I” thinking by editorial writers, columnists and commentators. The reader or listener or viewer knew the differences.
Now the public is very confused about what in the world is going on. They see network reporters on the nightly news as straight news reporters, then on weekend programs as commentators or pundits. They see TV anchor people on their news programs, then hear them on other programs giving their opinions about the news they reported straight. They see straight news reporters for newspapers and other publications on television or radio acting as pundits. They even see, from time to time, opinions masquerading as angles, in straight news stories in all media. The result has been a problem for some of us still trying to operate under the old rules.
At the “NewsHour” we had a situation at the beginning of the Lewinsky matter that involved one of our regular straight news contributors, Stuart Taylor, then of the American Lawyer and Legal Times. He covered the Supreme Court for us and did so brilliantly. But as the Lewinsky story broke, and then shook, rattled and rolled, he developed into a commentator about the story. Not on the “NewsHour,” but on other programs and in print. I felt there was some confusion about his roles, and we dropped him from his regular reporting slot. We were attacked by many well-meaning people who saw our decision as being pro-Clinton, an effort to keep Taylor’s strong views about the president off our program. I tried to explain it on the air. But I was truly swimming upstream, and I still am.
Only one person in the press came to my assistance, by the way. Howard Rosenberg, the TV critic of The Los Angeles Times, helped me explain it in a column. Everyone else who should care about such things remained absolutely silent. And by their silence, said: You’re a dinosaur, Lehrer. Journalism has changed, and you haven’t. I hereby plead guilty. In doing so, I do not wrap myself in some cloak of goodness and accuse everyone who disagrees with me of being some kind of lesser person or professional. There are no evil or wrong people involved in this change, this evolution into a new journalism.
My point is that those who practice it have an obligation to explain what they are doing and why—to bring the public under the tent with them. Because if they do not, it will continue to be one of those reasons our esteem continues to sink in the eyes and minds of the American public. And the problem with that is simply there is no room left down there to go.
Jim Lehrer is Executive Editor and Anchor of “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.” He gave this speech at the International Center for Journalists’ annual benefit to pay tribute to newspersons from abroad on October 14, 1998, in Washington, D.C.