Needed: good editors

July 17, 1998|By George Langford

CHICAGO -- There is a consensus in the news business that the journalism profession has had better days.

Journalists have been accused in the last two months of lying, stealing, racing into print with inadequately sourced stories and abusing the anonymous-sources crutch. Four have been fired, two resigned, one was reprimanded and a handful have either offered to quit or should. Damage assessments and theories about what caused these recent messes vary wildly.

Embarrassment abounds in an industry that for most of this decade has favored hand wringing, hair shirts, New Age consultants, focus groups and intense navel gazing to help it understand its slipping popularity and credibility.

Things have come to such a pass that entrepreneurs such as Steven Brill (publisher of the new Brill's Content magazine that critiques the news media's performance) see a market for watchdogs to nip at the watchdogs.

Columnist Patricia Smith of the Boston Globe resigned after it was revealed she made up characters and quotes. The Globe now says she fabricated information in about two dozen pieces in the last 2 1/2 years.

The New Republic determined that a former associate editor, Stephen Glass, faked six stories and made up parts of 21 others since December 1996.

CNN retracted a story about U.S. military use of nerve gas against Vietnam War defectors, and Time magazine ran a full-page apology last week for printing the same story. Both said the story was inadequately sourced. Two producers were fired, another quit, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Peter Arnett was reprimanded, and CNN News Group Chairman Tom Johnson had his resignation offer rejected.

The Cincinnati Enquirer says a reporter may have stolen voice-mail messages while investigating business practices of Chiquita Brands International Inc. The reporter has been fired, and the Enquirer has paid Chiquita more than $10 million.

Trash journalism

And there has been since January an eruption of gossip and titillation from those secretive Washington sources about Monica Lewinsky and the president. Mishandling that trash will not be remembered among journalism's finest hours.

Those are just the headliners. There have been a number of other violations of the public trust by newspapers and magazines in the last few months, from sloppy reporting to basing stories on inaccurate information.

An anomaly? Maybe. An industry disaster? Not yet. A warning that some things need fixing? Absolutely.

The cover of the respected Columbia Journalism Review this month carries the headline: "Money Lust, How Pressure for Profit is Perverting Journalism." Is this the problem? The articles were not convincing. Sure, demand for higher margins has led to cutbacks in the ranks of editors and fact checkers in some shops, but it does not provide an excuse for ethical transgressions.

Aside from ambition, the one thread that has been critical to these unravelings has been the editors. Where were they?

Disappearing act

Some of their colleagues have disappeared. Two weeks ago, a New York Times article bemoaned the significant cutback of editing staffs at the large book publishing houses as the reason for an ever-increasing error rate in books. The same probably can be said for magazines, television and newspapers, although there are no industry data.

Worthy editors are equal parts good shepherds and searing skeptics. They are the detectives who check the source, question the premise, demand the extra step, never lose sight of objectivity and all the while lend support and encouragement. Like great teachers, they are worth a helluva lot more than most are paid. Journalism is their religion. They uphold the credibility standard against attacks of inexperience, economics, personal ambition, malicious agenda, newsroom politics, work overload, deadlines and competition.

By all accounts, Ms. Smith, Mr. Gallagher and Mr. Glass lied to their editors, and the editors either bought the lies, looked the other way or, in one case, may have been a willing participant.

At CNN, the reporters' enthusiasm for the strengths of their sources and the apparent withholding of evidence contrary to their premise convinced the editors. And juicy Monica/Bill whispers seduced otherwise responsible news chiefs to report prominently unsubstantiated information from anonymous sources, a lapse that most soon recognized and have tried to correct.

A good liar, no matter what his profession, can fool you. A good editor can have a lax moment, and it is bad news. But most alert editors, given the proper conditions, will scrutinize information sufficiently to uncover malpractice.

The fix here is not complicated. Hire good, dedicated editors in sufficient number at whatever price your publication equates with credibility. Provide a reasonable environment that allows those editors time, resources, support and freedom from internal gamesmanship to practice sound journalism. It won't catch every liar and thief, but it will establish a formidable hurdle, and over time the public's trust in journalism will be renewed.

H

George Langford is public editor of the Chicago Tribune.

Pub Date: 7/17/98

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