Fix journalism before the craft sinks

Media: Mergers, scandals and the Internet have brought changes that threaten serious harm to the news industry.

March 19, 2000|By Linda K. Foley

ISSUES surrounding the news media have entered the realm of the weather. There is a lot of talk about the subject, but there is little action that would resolve the problems bedeviling American journalism in its many forms.

The planned merger of America Online and Time Warner is just the latest of many recent corporate actions that have perplexing implications for the journalism media, particularly after the scandal at the Los Angeles Times in which corporate managers blithely knocked down the wall separating functions of news gathering from revenue generating.

Elsewhere, we see other examples of lowering standards for reporting the news, mixing entertainment with the news and reducing the resources necessary to maintain the unique standards of watchdog American journalism alongside the aim of increasing profits in an exceedingly profitable business.

No wonder consistent polling data show a continuing decline in the public's confidence in and respect for the independent, investigative journalism that has long been an essential part of the American democracy.

In some polls, only health management organizations attract less support than American print and electronic news media.

Less well known, but just as important, are polling results that show low morale and professional unease among working journalists. Middle managers are trapped between the unremitting pressure of their bosses to lower costs and increase profits and the apprehensions of street-level journalists who are unable to perform their craft in the manner for which they were trained.

Yes, there is some action under the generic rubric of "journalism reform" to counter the negative trends in our business. There is more research available than ever to describe the problems facing our industry, and many highly motivated and dedicated men and women are trying to patch up the vessel before it springs more leaks and starts to sink.

Across the country, there are lectures, workshops and training sessions to help journalists and lower-level managers deal with their problems. One of the most promising developments is the draft "A Statement of Shared Purpose" produced by the Committee of Concerned Journalists, with which our Committee on the Future of Journalism has been cooperating.

But even this effort, as worthwhile as it is, is only a beginning toward a wider, deeper examination of the present state of the public affairs media and their stewardship of the First Amendment.

The most conscientious efforts at journalism reform will not succeed until two things occur:

One, the owners and managers of the traditional news organizations, who have so far stayed outside the reform movement, must sign on, as only they can make the big decisions required to restore public confidence in the practice of journalism.

Two, they must be joined by the many new actors in the communications industry who deal in news and opinion but who have no grounding in the ethics and culture of journalism.

Our committee, composed of members of the Newspaper Guild-CWA, has concluded there is one approach that could deal with all of the issues challenging American journalism: the formation of a citizens commission that would study the performance of everyone who works under the protection of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Independent of the industry and free of government influence, such a commission would have the standing required to get owners, managers and workers in all media into the same tent to explain their contemporary understanding of the First Amendment, the foundation for the public dialogue that makes our democratic system work.

More than 50 years ago, the only other commission of this type, under the direction of Robert M. Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago, warned of the dangers to American democracy from the trend toward concentrated ownership of the news media.

As prescient as that group was, it had no clue of the impact that television, cable television and the Internet would have on journalism.

It was fashionable for members of the industry to disparage and ignore the findings of the Hutchins Commission, but much of its report is still valid. A new commission would have to avoid the errors of the Hutchins Commission, with its excessive reliance on academic experts.

The organization and funding of such a commission should come from foundations that have no links to the industry.

Only a commission of this type, equipped with all the available research, could generate a consensus among all elements of the industry on remedies that would begin to restore the public's confidence in strong, independent American journalism.

Such a commission could also deliver a ringing reaffirmation to the essential role of the free, watchdog press in this fast-changing environment.

Linda K. Foley is president of the Newspaper Guild-CWA and chair of its Committee on the Future of Journalism.

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