The temptation to self-importance

January 28, 1996|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE De GRACE -- The world of big-time journalism, prodded by a couple of recent books that provide titillating details about such things as salaries and lecture fees, is once again indulging in its beloved pastime of self-analysis.

Why oh why, wonder the bigfoot commentators of broadcast and the earnest eminences of print, are The People so suspicious of us? They keep raising hard questions, which aren't quite fair. To wit:

Can Sam Donaldson of ABC, after accepting a $30,000 fee for a speech to an insurance-industry group, then credibly hammer members of Congress who go on all-expenses-paid trips with Washington lobbyists? And can Rancher Sam, who has 20,000 acres in New Mexico and has received some $97,000 in wool and mohair subsidies, really report dispassionately on government farm programs?

How about the newspaper and magazine people who get themselves on television and then use their new exposure to cash in on the lecture circuit? David Gergen, while working as a journalist in between political jobs, made 121 speeches in 1992. He was paid $466,625 for this, reports the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz in his new book ''Hot Air.''

That's a lot of money, although much less than sheepherder Donaldson's $2 million annual salary at ABC, or Rush Limbaugh's estimated $25 million in annual revenues, or Oprah Winfrey's reported $200 million net worth.

Is all this opulence really bad? Some would-be celebrity journalists who haven't managed to cash in think so, but from a broad national perspective it doesn't do much harm. In fact, because it underscores the hypocrisy of much of the preachy press, it may even be healthy.

Most of the public, I suspect, doesn't give a hoot that Sam Donaldson is rich. They see him as an entertainer, like Michael Jackson, and entertainers are supposed to be rich. Criticism of rich journalists is loudest from within the press, and much of it is surely motivated more by envy than by principle.

Precious 'integrity'

Both Mr. Kurtz and James Fallows, whose book on the press is called ''Breaking the News,'' make the point that the road to journalistic self-enrichment leads first to television and then to the podium. First you become a celebrity, in other words, and then you cash in on it -- denying all the while that your judgment and your precious ''integrity'' have been in any way affected.

It's the celebrity status, far more than the money, that's the real danger.

When I was a reporter in Washington and Baltimore in the '60s and '70s, I was occasionally asked to be on television in connection with stories I was covering. I wasn't any good at it, and was never offered so much as a dollar for participating, but it was fun to sit there in the bright lights and talk, however vapidly, about the news.

I didn't see anything wrong with doing that then. But I know it tended to make me think, quite erroneously, that because I was on television I must be an important person. And that's not a healthy belief for a journalist.

The question of speaking fees is a little different. When I was a staff columnist for The Sun I was often asked to speak, and usually accepted, because I considered it part of the job. Most of the audiences were civic groups or other non-profit organizations, and I never considered that I ought to be paid.

If I'd accepted money I would have felt, in a small way, that I'd compromised myself, and compromised the newspaper. A little speaking fee wouldn't have bought my loyalty or changed my opinion, of course, but it wouldn't have looked right. Or so I felt at the time. Even today, when I read of well paid journalists accepting fat honoraria from groups they cover, it makes me a little ill.

Most do this not because they're for sale, or greedy, but because they've come to think of themselves as famous people -- ''public somebodies,'' in Walter Lippmann's term -- who deserve this recognition. And that's the deepest pitfall of all.

In a wonderful letter written in 1940 to Alexander Woollcott, Lippmann observed that ''the most insidious of all the temptations'' facing a journalist ''is to think of oneself as engaged in a public career on the stage of the world.''

As a columnist, he said, ''I take the view that I write of matters about which I think I have something to say but that as a person I am nobody of any public importance.''

More journalists, he concluded, have been ruined by self-importance than by liquor. Today, he'd probably modify that to say that journalism itself has been damaged more seriously by self-importance than by money.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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