A Free Press and the Public Trust

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BARUCH COLLEGE, NEW YORK, NY (7/07/03)—News organizations face an uphill battle in regaining the public’s trust, a panel of distinguished journalists asserted last week [June 23]. And to win the battle, they must overcome their own arrogance, inaccessibility and defensiveness, they said.

Panelists at A Free Press and the Public Trust

When readers call to complain about coverage, they “don’t want you to ‘help them understand’ – they want you to listen,” said Geneva Overholser, a former ombudsman at The Washington Post who is now the Hurley Professor in Public Affairs Reporting at the University of Missouri. “And they want you to take them seriously.”

In the wake of the recent scandal at The New York Times that led to the resignation of Howell Raines, the executive editor, and Gerald Boyd, the managing editor, the panel assessed the damage to the press’s reputation and considered how news organizations might better police themselves and rebuild public trust.

The other panelists were Tom Goldstein, former dean of the graduate schools of journalism at the University of California at Berkeley and Columbia University; Dorothy Rabinowitz, media critic for The Wall Street Journal and a member of its editorial board; and Jan Schaffer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and editor who is now executive director of the Pew Center for Civic Journalism. The moderator was Prof., Joshua Mills, director of the Master’s Program in Business Journalism at Baruch, which sponsored the event. (Three of the group had worked at the Times: Goldstein as a reporter; Mills as an editor and Overholser as a member of its editorial board.)

“You don’t have to trust the papers,” Rabinowitz reminded the audience. “Why should you confer your God-given analytical powers on the press? Use what’s there, say to yourself, ‘I do or do not believe it,’ and go on.”

Event participants speak to Baruch President Ned Regan and Professor Joshua Mills.

Goldstein, who will join the faculty at Arizona State University in the fall, expressed concern that a healthy dose of skepticism about the press was giving way to cynicism. “The postmodern reaction is that you can’t trust anything you read,” he said. “I disagree with that.”

Still, Schaffer, a reporter and business editor for The Philadelphia Inquirer before joining the Pew Center, a journalism think tank and “incubator,” expressed concern that journalistic fraud on the rise, both in incidence and severity. “I think we’re into Enron-world full-term fraud,” she said.

For the journalism world to overcome current hurdles, the panelists agreed, it must accept the notion of accessibility. “One thing I’ve found fascinating about the Times over the years is that it fastidiously and almost compulsively corrects everything,” said Mills, “but on the other hand, it doesn’t make it easy to get in touch with its people,” by phone, e-mail or fax.

One gaping hole in American newsrooms, according to Overholser, is a lack of ombudsmen. Only 40 of 1,500 U.S. dailies have a person on staff whose designated role is to analyze and write about the paper’s coverage and respond to readers’ concerns.

“I didn’t believe in ombudsmen until I became one,” she said. “When I was an editor [of The Des Moines Register] I said what all editors say – ‘The buck stops here’ – but that’s part of the problem.”

Schaffer agreed, saying every newspaper needs some kind of entry point for people to provide feedback, information and corrections, whether it is a designated ombudsman or a “reader representative” of some sort. Goldstein called The Washington Post’s use of the ombudsman position a model for all papers, crediting Overholser for what he called her “crusade” against anonymous sources. He pointedly asserted that news organizations must rein in this all-too-common practice if they are serious about averting fraud.

Overholser linked that comment to the Times scandal involving its reporter Jayson Blair, noting that editors missed some red flags when it came to his reporting.

“In the sniper coverage – the biggest news story of the time – this very young man… was using anonymous sources and he wasn’t questioned in their use,” she said.

Another industry practice that may need re-examination, the panelists said, is the role of favoritism and preferential treatment in the newsroom.
“Journalism rests on the star system, and there are good reasons for that,” said Goldstein. But given that top New York Times editors consistently overlooked Blair’s numerous inaccuracies, he said, “if there needs to be a star system, how do you manage it?’”

Rabinowitz agreed that star journalists often go unquestioned. But Overholser was not ready to scrap preferential treatment altogether. “I’m not sure we want to stick a dagger in the heart of the star system,” she said, “or we’d pretty well take the air out of journalism.”

Spirited questions from the audience expressed distrust of the press on several fronts, including its coverage of the war in Iraq and its reliance on questionable sources. By the end of the discussion, it was clear that that some people’s suspicions of the press go well beyond the Jayson Blair incident and The New York Times.

Michael Juhre is a student in the Master’s Program in Business Journalism at Baruch College/CUNY.