About Journalism

THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Louis Boccardi
Title: About Journalism
VTR: 6-11-84

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. I’ve noted before that one of the blessings of also doing my other weekly program, From the Editor’s Desk, is that I get to meet so many more interesting people whose ideas I can then explore with you more deeply here on The Open Mind. Well, Louis D. Boccardi, Executive Vice President of The Associated Press, is one of these personalities, one of my intriguing editorial colleagues. We’ve done a number of Open Mind programs, of course, on the press, but usually with people who haven’t had quite so much direct experience reporting, and thus, interpreting – whether it’s called that or not – what goes on in the world for the American public. But Lou Boccardi is an old hand at it, defends the liberties of the press right down to the dotting of ever “I” and the crossing of every “t”. And that’s why I was quite so intrigued recently by a speech, “Press and the Public, What to Do”, that Mr. Boccardi delivered, in which he raised the question for his journalistic colleagues, “Have we reached a point where we must recognize an obligation not to do some of the things the First Amendment gives us every right to do? Have we acquired habits that need to be broken?” Well, naturally, I want to press Lou Boccardi to explain himself. Lou, what do you mean?

BOCCARDI: Those comments, I think, were in the context of defense of the liberties of the press to which you alluded a second ago. I was talking there about a self-examination by my profession into some of the things, some of the habits that have grown up in recent years, that perhaps we ought to break, or at least think about breaking. And I have in mind such things as the over reliance on anonymity, anonymous sources, which is a clear irritant to a large portion of the audience that we serve. Questions about privacy, and whether there are finally moments which should be outside the purview of the press. Things, both of which, anonymity and privacy, we have every right, on the basis of the First Amendment, to report in really any fashion that we choose. Those are some examples of the kind of thing that I was talking about in that speech.

HEFFNER: You say “anonymity”. Do you think that that riles the public, or that it just means that the press can get away with things that maybe are not a hundred percent by attributing them to anonymous sources?

BOCCARDI: I think there are a couple of problems with anonymity. First of all, I think, most seriously, that anonymity damages the credibility of a news story. There are circumstances where you have to have it: when a whistle-blower is willing to tell a reporter something going on in government, perhaps, that really should be part of the public’s knowledge, but the whistle-blower cannot afford to be identified with it. To my mind, that’s acceptable. What, in my judgment, is not acceptable anonymity, is the argument for policy anonymously, opinion anonymously delivered. I think those things do bother the reading public. They certainly bother the people whose paths cross mine. They show up in reader surveys that are taken by people interested in polling on attitudes toward the press. And I think, generally, anonymity weakens news coverage, and, therefore, there should be less of it.

HEFFNER: What do you think it means to be, to the reader, when an unidentified spokesman or some other euphemism is used? What does it seem to you to register with the reader as?

BOCCARDI: I think it can mean a few things. I’m sure there are some readers out there who think that that’s just the reporter making it up. That’s not my experience at all; and I don’t think that that’s the problem. I think that many readers will, if they don’t believe that it’s been made up, will then say, “Well, gee, I’d really like to know who it is who is saying this”. Now, I said a second ago, there are these whistle-blower kind of situations where people run risk of their jobs; in some parts of the world they run risk of their lives if they were to be identified in print as the source of the story. So there’s a legitimate aspect to this. It’s the overuse of it and the abuse of it that I think we ought to worry a little bit about.

HEFFNER: Well, well, the question that occurs to me, of course, is: Why is it used, or overused, in this way? Once you get beyond the protecting of the life, indeed, the vital interests, of your source, why would a reporter, why would a journalist, make use of this device?

BOCCARDI: Well, some people attribute the increased use of anonymity to Watergate and Deep Throat, and detecting an increase in the use since then. There are some occasions in which it’s easier to do it that way, and a reporter doesn’t have to take that extra third and fourth and fifth step to find someone to whom the information can be attributed by name. I think it’s just been built into the coverage of a great deal of Washington, for example. It’s a particular problem down there. We uncovered, recently – and it’s an old document, but it was new to us – an instruction to senior officials in the State Department which said that the basic way to talk to the press is anonymously. Well, here it was as a piece of official government policy. And the memo was anonymous of course. And so you’re dealing, particularly in the government context, with an environment where anonymity is assumed. I saw one the other day in which an environmental group had attacked some aspect of the Reagan administration’s environmental policies. I know nothing about the group. I don’t know whether they are responsible or irresponsible. I don’t even remember the name of the group. At any rate, a reporter went to the Department of the Interior for a reaction, which is a matter of basic fairness. And the response from the department was a defense of the program, but it was delivered on condition that the speaker not be identified.

HEFFNER: What do you do with a story like that, then?

BOCCARDI: In that case, the way that ultimately played out, we said that on one would respond on the record, but that there were these statements in background, in our “clips”, as we say, that gave a response, not the specific things said that day, but in general, to criticism of the program.

HEFFNER: But, you know…

BOCCARDI: But that’s not the way it started. In the first crack, it was an anonymous person saying, “Our record is so good”, and that’s, I think, just not right.

HEFFNER: But, you k now, I’m interested that you say – you sort of say it flat out – that this has not been used, this device has not been abused because it has been used to cover up an inadequacy on the part of the reporter. It’s true what the reporters have reported, and they haven’t used anonymity as a device for getting in points of view that really cannot be attributed to anyone. Is that your experience?

BOCCARDI: What I said was that my experience is that anonymity is not another word for fiction. I can’t sit here and tell you that that has never happened. Obviously, it may well have. In my experience though, that’s not the heart of the problem. The heart of the problem is simply under-reporting a story, and, as I’ve said, a tendency on the part of government and others whom we interview to enjoy this anonymous relationship, the lack of accountability that it affords them.

HEFFNER: Lou, how much fiction is there in American journalism? A big question, ridiculous question, but let’s see what your answer is.

BOCCARDI: Well, I’d like to say none. Obviously, there have been a few widely, highly celebrated incidents in the last few years, and I think that these incidents, the fact that they did cause such commotion, if that’s the right word, suggests that it is hardly the norm of our profession. I think there is very, very little of it. There should be none, and, to the extent that there is a story in anyone’s career that has that taint to it, I think that’s a professional disgrace.

HEFFNER: You’ve been around a while. More fiction now than when you went into the business?

BOCCARDI: Well, as I’ve said, I think there’s little, very little…

HEFFNER: Right.

BOCCARDI: …almost an immeasurable amount of it, and so I have no basis to say more or less. I would say though, that I think there is a higher sense of ethical concern in our business now than there ever was before, and I really don’t mean that to be self-serving. You have a speech there in which I publicly talked about some of the things that I think we need to think about, and worry about, and maybe change. But there has never been, in my experience, more concern on the part of the journalists in this country about the credibility of what we do, the reaction of the audience to who we are and what we do, than there is now.

HEFFNER: But, of course, I, I mean, I took careful note of that in your speech; but it occurred to me that you couldn’t be saying that, you wouldn’t be reflecting a truth that there is that much concern, unless there were some reason for the concern.

BOCCARDI: I think the reason that you see this concern now is a sense that some of us have that in, with the presence of the media in this society, the omnipresence, I should say, we seem , in a sense, to be everywhere. There’s virtually no institution not somehow touched by the media, even into the political process. And that, I think, puts us on center stage in a way. That was not the case a few decades ago. And that calls, I think, for the kind of reexamination of some of these habits that we’ve been talking about.

HEFFNER: Of course it interests me; you mention politics, the impact upon political life. And the other day, when you and I were doing From the Editor’s Desk with Robin Straus, the former Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, he said something at the end about the, I guess one of us asked a question about the media, and his answer was such that you raised the question as to whether he was being very negative, whether he was attacking the press here. And he made sure to say no. Do you think that the role of the press – we’re taping this show mid-June, 1984. The Democratic primaries are basically over. The race isn’t over, but the primaries are – do you think that your profession, journalism – I called it a business before, and I guess I want to ask you about that, whether it is business or profession – do you think that the profession had the kind of impact upon American politics this past spring that you might be concerned about?

BOCCARDI: I don’t think there’s any question that the Democratic primary process was very much played out in the media. Look at the rise of the political consultant. Look at all the conversation about the debates and who won the debate, and who’s a hot candidate and who’s a cool candidate in terms of how they react on television. There’s no question in my mind but that television has become a major force in the political process.

HEFFNER: For good or for bad?

BOCCARDI: Well, it’s inevitable. The technology is here, and I think that the question for us as journalists is that we carry out these responsibilities in a better way. I don’t think that it makes any sense to sit here and try to uninvent the technology. It’s here, and our challenge is to use it responsibly and use it constructively. When you alluded a minute ago to the press as a business and/or a profession, if I may take that question now too…

HEFFNER: Sure.

BOCCARDI: It’s perfectly obvious that newspapers which are not successful business enterprises go away. So that we are engaged in a business, but it is also a profession. And it is a business with a very, very serious public trust and public responsibility.

HEFFNER: And you feel it, by and large, lives up to that trust and that responsibility?

BOCCARDI: I feel that, by and large, it does, yes. I wouldn’t be raising some of the questions I’ve raised if I thought that our policies were perfect and that there was nothing to be gained by re-examining any of them. I think, and I see the press from virtually the entire world. I think the American people are served extraordinarily well by the free press system that we have. That is not to say, though, that people in my profession can sit smug and complacent and arrogant, if you will, and dismiss all complaint with a notion that, “Well, it’s better here than elsewhere”. It should be better here, and it should be as close to perfect here as we can make it.

HEFFNER: Well, I realize that, in reading this speech, that you were not just saying, “Let us restrain ourselves where that is responsible and appropriate to do:, but you were offering also a great deal of praise for the profession. I’d like to go back a moment to something you just said. You were talking about politics.

BOCCARDI: Yes.

HEFFNER: You quickly made that television, you made that electronic journalism. Without discussing the merits or demerits of electronic journalism in regards to politics, it seems to me that the printed press played a very considerable role, too, in reporting who won this and who’s doing that, and making hay while the primary sun was shining. Do you not want to address yourself to the printed press, too, in terms of its responsibilities?

BOCCARDI: Sure. I focused first on television because, in the questioning of Mr. Straus, that’s what he was referring to, and you put your comment here in the framework of…

HEFFNER: Right.

BOCCARDI: …what we had been saying with Robert Straus. I think that the television coverage of political campaigns has become more of a central point in this discussion of the place of the press in the society now. The television link to politics is a little bit more to the center of the issue. The printed press, as far as politics, political coverage is concerned, I think, is doing a better job with issues, a better job with backgrounding, the statements of the candidates, and the charges that are planned around how they will play on television. I don‘t know – and I’m subject to correction – I don’t know a lot of political consultants who made their careers or made their money based on trying to advise candidates as to how their campaign for the Senate was going to play in the printed press. So, that’s the framework in which I was focusing on tonight.

HEFFNER: You mean we can make the assumption that the AP will always be there to pick up the stories, and not so true with the electronic people?

BOCCARDI: No. The AP serves both print and electronic, as you well know. They’re fulfilling different functions, though, in respect to coverage of the campaign.

HEFFNER: You know, I had the feeling, over this past primary campaign, that print ws carry it’s, more than its share, of responsibility for the analysis of what was happening in the primaries, in the polls, etcetera. The feeling this wasn’t all an electronic – as Michael O’Neill said on this program one day, “You know, the beady red eye of that camera” – but time flies. I don’t want to leave this…You mentioned tow things in particular when you started. You talked about anonymity. You talked about privacy. What is it about the press and privacy that leads you to send up a signal to your colleagues?

BOCCARDI: A feeling that a good deal of the public reacts negatively to some of the things that are perceived as invasions of privacy. Again, to start with electronics, although print has a role here too, the cliché telephone put – excuse me – microphone put in the face of the grieving mother at the scene of a fire, and the question inevitably, “Well, how do you feel about this?” has become a cliché, and almost a joke, I mean, despite the tragic circumstances. And yet you see it night after night in almost every city in America. Privacy has a print context. At the time of the marine deaths in Lebanon, a still camera newspaper photographer was in a home when the marine major arrived to deliver the news to this mother and father that their son had been killed. That’s a difficult, it’s difficult for me to defend a newspaper camera or, for that matter, an AP camera, in that environment in that circumstance. Those are some of the kinds of things that I think we just need to be a little bit more careful about. If I may add another one, the good news/bad news issue is something, too, that I think we need to think about a little bit.

HEFFNER: I thought good news wasn’t news.

BOCCARDI: No, not quite. There is an element of abnormality that is pat of news. If, before this program goes off the air, I fall over dead here, your viewers will remember this show for the rest of their lives.

HEFFNER: Don’t do that just yet, Lou.

BOCCARDI: I don’t intend to. I don’t intend to. You may even remember it. But the point is that there is some, a sense of news as something not quite normal. Where we slip off the track, I think, is if we fashion, day after day, and week after week, a news package that is somehow not reflective of the reader’s sense of the way things really are. It’s possible, you know, to read the newspaper for a week or two, or watch a television news program for a week or two, and come away wit the feeling that nobody anywhere is doing anything right. And that’s not the experience of the readers and viewers that we serve. And so I think he good news/bad news argument is not the notion of just filling your newspaper of filling your airwaves with pointless trivia that makes everybody feel good. It’s rather to balance that picture of reality in a way that it somehow fits the audience’s sense of the reality of their own lives.

HEFFNER: You know, that leads me, obviously, to the question of what then, what happens if your colleagues, generally speaking, as a profession, don’t pay that much attention to the warnings that you’ve posted here in this speech? And I obviously don’t mean just in this speech. But suppose the profession continues just along the lines that it has been following the last few years; then what?

BOCCARDI: Well, for one thing, the sorts of things I’ve said in this talk are not simply things that I’m saying. There are many people in my profession who agree with what I’ve said.

HEFFNER: With what result?

BOCCARDI: You ask what will happen if it’s all ignored?

HEFFNER: Right.

BOCCARDI: I think we will suffer a further erosion of public understanding and support of the function of the press in this society; and over a long time, decades, I think that erosion could come to a point where we should see a serious challenge to the free press, First-Amendment-based system that we own. But I don’t mean to be scary about that. That’s decades away. In the mean time, all sorts of mischief can be made by people whose motive is not a better press performance, a more effective press performance, but whose motive is partisan, and who will, who can and have and will use their criticisms of the press not to achieve a better press but to achieve a press that is somehow more fitting to the kind of bias, if you will, to their own ideas, to their own editorialized ideas.

HEFFNER: Who are those people now, in our society, at this point, who are doing that?

BOCCARDI: Well, you hear criticism from all sides of the political spectrum, of the press, and a lot of it depends on the politics of the critic. This isn’t something that is particularly the province of a given administration, of a given political party. It happens in the states, among all the parties. This isn’t a phenomenon that I would associate with any particular spectrum, political spectrum. It’s all over.

HEFFNER: Which, of course, leads me to ask you why then, if it’s all over, as you say, all over the lot, why are you quite so sanguine that it won’t be this year, it won’t be next year, but sometime in the profound future?

BOCCARDI: Well, because I think that the American people have a great deal of faith in the American system, and a free press is an absolute pillar of that system. When we talk about the First Amendment, that’s not some little charter that lets me do some things or you, as a journalist, do some things. It’s a fundamental right of the people of this country to be informed without government intervention, to speak their minds, to congregate as they will.

HEFFNER: But you know, Lou, over the past number of years, the last half-decade, I remember Dave Yankelovich was here at this table talking about the report that was done by his group on Americans’ attitudes towards the First Amendment and towards the fairness doctrine. And the conclusion was we just wanted fairness. We weren’t looking to do in the First Amendment. But I have to say to you that I have many conversations, and I wonder if it’s your experience too, in which person after person who should be, indeed, people who are familiar with First Amendment considerations are saying, “Not now. We’ve gone too far”. I’m not as hopeful as you are that we’re going to resolve this in terms of the press assuming its responsibilities full enough to prevent this other movement from moving even further.

BOCCARDI: Well, we’ve spent some time here talking about some of the things that I think the press can do. And, again, I say I’m not alone in this. I think these issues are being addressed. And, therefore, I am sanguine, to use your word, about our achieving or restoring, if you will, the kind of public support that I think the press ought to have and has had.

HEFFNER: Do you think it can be restored sufficiently within the context of a profession that is also a business, to go back to that other point, where competition is so terribly important?

BOCCARDI: Well, I know press systems in a lot of countries where the press isn’t a business; it’s run by the government. And I don’t think that that offers much hope as an alternative.

HEFFNER: Yeah, but, come on, we’re friends. You know I’m not suggesting that. But I am raising the question as to whether, within the context of its business structure, we’re going to find that responsibility acted upon freely enough to stop the kinds of reactions…

BOCCARDI: Let me answer your question this way: If you were the publisher of a newspaper or the editor-in-chief of a newspaper, could you think of many more serious business problems than you would have if your audience simply walked away from you?

HEFFNER: No, I think that’s a darned good point. But, in the meantime, we know they’re going to walk someplace, and thus far, as you’re saying that they have been walking away?

BOCCARDI: No.

HEFFNER: Well?

BOCCARDI: No. You ask me whether it is possible in a competitive environment where an enterprise must succeed as a business, whether it’s possible to address the kinds of questions we’ve been talking about there. And my response is that these considerations must be addressed; and will be addressed, because without their being addressed and somehow surmounted, dealt with, you pose a very serious business issue, let alone the other level of the public responsibility that this business has.

HEFFNER: Well, you’re a foresightful person. You think in terms of big issues and in long periods of time, but the question of, “What are we going to do tonight” seems to me still to be prevalent in this business of journalism.

BOCCARDI: Of course it is. And in a news service like the one that I’m connected with, the question often can’t wait until tonight. It’s, “What are we going to do now, in the next five minutes?” I think that the kinds of things we’ve talked about here, the questions that we’ve raised about press performance, are being asked in newsrooms allover the country, and are being addressed. These need to be addressed individually. I’m not advocating any mass code or anything like that. I’m suggesting that they be addressed individually, in the local circumstances, and they are being addressed. And I think that this process is one that just needs to unfold, and will.

HEFFNER: You’re such a wonderfully positive guy. And you obviously…

BOCCARDI: Not always. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: …are on this point. But you are on this point.

BOCCARDI: I am on this point because I’m comforted that the responsible people in this profession see some of these problems out there. And, while we don’t all agree on how to meet them all, there is at least concern about the issues. And I think that’s the beginning of this sanguine feeling that you accuse me of.

HEFFNER: Terrific. What a wonderful note to end on. Thanks so much for joining me today, Lou Boccardi.

BOCCARDI: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you will join us again next time. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.

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