Keeping reporters honest

July 23, 1998|By Reese Cleghorn

A SPATE of misdeeds in journalism has fed speculation that things are worse than ever, much-revered standards have gone out the window and a lot of journalism is pure fabrication.

Time out, please. A lot is going on here. In my judgment, most news organizations are more careful than ever to assure the integrity of their work. But there is more reporting, there are more outlets and there are more pressures. And there are more breakdowns.

The most recent failures may not have much of a pattern, except that they were exposed. Several of them simply exemplify extreme breakdowns in the machinery that ordinarily is in place to protect readers and viewers.

What is the best defense against bad performance?

Half a century ago the Commission on Freedom of the Press, headed by Robert Maynard Hutchins of the University of Chicago, concluded that the failings of the press were being kept under cover.

"We recommend that the members of the press engage in vigorous mutual criticism," it said. "Professional standards are not likely to be achieved as long as the mistakes and errors, the frauds and crimes, committed by units of the press are passed over in silence by other members of the profession."

The commission found little self-criticism and hardly any independent reviews of journalism performance. That was in 1947. Today the press relentlessly exposes its own bad performances.

In the public interest

This is why you know a lot about the recent scandals. Without a doubt, the press' continuing exposure of the press is the best protection the public has against bad journalism.

If you have read newspapers or watched television, you may know a lot about debacles involving CNN and its nerve gas story, the egg-on-his-face embarrassment of that great reporter Peter Arnett and the just plain fabrications of New Republic writer Stephen Glass and Boston Globe columnist Patricia Smith.

But maybe the press' self-criticism is not why we know about the Cincinnati Enquirer's groveling surrender to Chiquita Brands International. This involved the paper's report accusing Chiquita various ugly practices, made possible in part by the snitching of company voice mail recordings. The Enquirer's report was followed by a big page-one headline ("An Apology to Chiquita") that ran for three days, dismissal of reporter Mike Gallagher and a payment of more than $10 million to Chiquita.

Didn't the public learn about this because of a threatened lawsuit that moved lawyers to agree on a public confession by the Enquirer? This was not the press voluntarily reporting on itself.

Ah, but the story is still unfolding. In fact we are learning more about it because of the press, despite the Cincinnati Enquirer. (The Enquirer's management refuses to provide information to reporters. In collaboration with Chiquita, it has gagged itself.)

Chiquita, crowing about the Enquirer's retreat, now claims the paper's whole report was inaccurate and unfair.

But the New York Times has looked at the evidence produced by the Enquirer and from other sources. A page-one Times story by reporter Douglas Frantz demonstrates that, notwithstanding questions about the invasion of Chiquita's voice mail, the company has a lot of explaining to do about the practices that Mike Gallagher alleged.

The facts are not all in yet. One mystery is why the Gannett Co., owner of the Enquirer, would have consented to the most total and humiliating retreat one can recall in the recent history of newspapers when no one has yet proved the report was significantly off base. Maybe it was. Maybe not. The Enquirer and Chiquita are not helping us find out. But we will. The press will tell us.

A rookie network

The Atlanta-based CNN suffered its biggest embarrassment ever in retreating from a report suggesting that nerve gas was used in Vietnam and American deserters were targeted. You have to respect CNN's desire to quickly pull back, since there seems to have been insufficient evidence backing up the story. But how did it let this happen?

This very basic news organization has filled a huge void in television journalism. But CNN has had relatively little experience in investigative journalism. This is especially noteworthy when you compare it with CBS's admirable "60 Minutes," which knows where to stop, and where to proceed, but with a lot of nuance and qualification.

Mr. Arnett's confession was positively painful. He admitted that he merely voiced the story, didn't change a comma, had not time to really get into the substance behind his report. This is what network anchors do all the time: They're just the "talent."

But Mr. Arnett, the greatest war reporter of our time, a man whose credibility is based not on great on-air skills but on his reputation as a reporter . . . say it ain't so, Peter.

But it is bound to be so on television, where on-air people often merely front for work done by producers and others. The pressure is on to get out not several but many compelling stories a year. No one is good enough to do that.

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