Losing The News, Part III

GUEST: Alex S. Jones
VTR: 05/21/2009

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind … and this is our third program with the author of an extraordinarily insightful and compelling new book on the press in America. Its grim title: “Losing The News”.

Alex Jones won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting at the New York Times…has written two magnificent studies of First Families of the American press: The Patriarch: The Rise and Fall of the Bingham Dynasty and The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind the New York Times.

And since 2000 my guest has been director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Let’s pick up now where we left off last time because I was going to take your title and take that public policy part of the Shorenstein Center and ask whether you deal with public policy in your dealings with would-be journalists, journalists who are there in mid-career, etc. What should public policy be? Not just in terms of the … I don’t mean the economics of the situation. But … open it up …

JONES: I feel that the … as far as the title that I have at Harvard … Shorenstein Center is for the … place where the press comes together with politics and public policy.

And by public policy I mean it in the very broadest sense. I interpret it to be in the very broadest sense … policy about how we live, how we govern ourselves, what our priorities are, what our, you know, from, from War and Peace to the environment … to any number of other things that can, you know, get right down on a local level to whether there should be, you know, a new sewer or a new, you know, water treatment plant. I think that the … the point is that the public policy questions of this country are informed critically by the kind of serious reporting that is mostly done by the nation’s newspapers. And with the nation’s newspapers in genuine jeopardy now that kind of reporting is in real jeopardy.

HEFFNER: You know … ahh … you leave out the question of … and no reason not to leave it out … because the school does what it does … I was thinking about the matter of public policy toward the press.

JONES: Toward the press itself? Well, you know, the thing is … I’m a believer that the, the press should steer as far away from control affiliation with government as possible. I think that the First Amendment is very, very elegantly constructed … it one the one hand … the first thing that it, that it guarantees is freedom of religion/conscience. The third thing that the First Amendment guarantees is the right to assembly which is politics, and the one it puts in the middle between conscience and politics is the press … the freedom of speech and of the press.

I think that is the role, the proper role of the press to be the facilitator between individual conscience, public conscience in a broad sense and the fulfillment of that in the, in terms of way we govern ourselves. The right of assembly, the kind of politics that I think that, you know, over the course of our history has been very rough and tumble at some places and the press has had a very kind of complicated role in the evolution of this.

But I think that the critical part of the role that the press has served, at least in the 20th century has been, for the most part to provide this core or verifiable factual information that allowed us to have this expansive conversation, or perhaps I should say, family argument that we’ve been having all these years in the form of politics.

If you don’t have that core of reliable, verifiable fact … that kind of a conversation becomes just a screaming match in which no one can prove or disprove anything because there’s no agreement about what approximate reality is. And I mean a practical reality, not some abstraction of reality.

HEFFNER: Well I, of course, was thinking about public policy in the way it may impact upon a free press. I was thinking of the Fairness Doctrine …

JONES: Yes.

HEFFNER: …for instance. We have none now …

JONES: I’m not a fan of the Fairness Doctrine. I believe that the, I think that we have so many mechanisms for communication now that I would be more afraid of some entity trying to decide what should be or what should not be than I would be of people whose opinions I hate, but who are free along with my own opinions to be expressed as I, as I choose.

You know that, you know again, public policy would include also not being able to falsely yell “Fire” in a crowded theater. I think that the, the courts have been wrestling with what is, you know, responsible and what is allowable speech for a long time.

But the Fairness Doctrine was set up to make it impossible for, say, a Rush Limbaugh to be able to be what Rush Limbaugh is without having someone grafted on his fanny to say, “I don’t agree with Rush Limbaugh and this is what I think.”

I think that Rush Limbaugh and, and everyone should be, in this environment allowed to speak and that we would lose more than we gained if we tried to, to interfere with that.

I, I believe that the best, the best we can hope for is that people will be able to make wise, informed decisions eventually and come to their senses. And if I, you know, find that I disagree with it, I want to have the power to say so. I don’t want someone telling me that I can’t.

HEFFNER: But, of course, the Fairness Doctrine was designed so that we, the people, could have a better block of information to enable us to make free and fair decisions.

JONES: That was the intent of it and at the time …

HEFFNER: Did it work out otherwise?

JONES: Well, I think it did. Because I think what happened was that in many cases the broad … this was for the broadcasters … this was not for newspapers because this came … the fact that, that broadcasters had to get licenses because the airwaves were considered to be a public good. The broadcaster were, were forced to embrace a Fairness Doctrine that, for the most part they dealt with by avoiding issues of, of contentious nature because they didn’t want to run afoul of someone accusing them of not being consistent or satisfying the Fairness Doctrine.

I think that the, that the problem we have with local television, for the most part, is that they basically abandoned anything to do with politics and policy.

If you go … if you look at the local news on any place in America now, you get, you know, wrecks, fires, sports and the weather. But I mean you really don’t get anybody covering politics at all.

In part that was a legacy of the Fairness Doctrine, I believe, and in part it was a legacy of the greed of the people who bought those stations from the original owners and paid a huge amount for them and did not want to make anybody mad and they avoided politics and policy questions because 1) people found them boring in some cases, and 2) that made people mad.

You know the sports doesn’t make you mad if you know the sports caster is cheering for the same team you are.

HEFFNER: You know it’s interesting, it’s certainly true that there were those who said that the Fairness Doctrine “chilled”, had a “chilling effect’’. I’ve always said to my students, I never saw anyone who was “chilled” by the Fairness Doctrine, but that may be just because I never noticed. But Fred Friendly, the late, great, Fred W. Friendly …

JONES: And I knew him and admired him, very greatly.

HEFFNER: Who certainly opposed the Fairness Doctrine … early on, but by the time Fred came here on The Open Mind, late … very late in his life … and I don’t know why I had made sure that it wasn’t much earlier … Fred had his questions and was not so determinedly against the Fairness Doctrine.

Other journalists … older, sort of out of the fray … have been saying the same thing. Dan Rather said the same thing here. And I wonder whether it was really the monstrosity and it was really the bane of newsperson’s existence, whether it really “chilled” …

JONES: Well, I guess that my, my belief is that, that we have sort of moved past a time when the Fairness Doctrine made sense.

The web cannot be, you know, imposed upon as a vehicle for the Fairness Doctrine. I think that would be inconceivable. I think the web culture is too much of a free-for-all to ever be, you know … to ever be subject to that.

Talk radio. Talk radio is overwhelmingly far to the Right. I think that that is something that I personally find, you know, not very … I, I don’t like it. I mean I don’t like what I hear. I very rarely listen to it.

But I have to admit that I feel uneasy, maybe it’s because I’m a print guy and, and the print culture in this country is to keep the government as far away in every respect as you can. I believe that newspapers were not saddled with any kind of Fairness Doctrine because the government didn’t have the power to impose it.

I don’t think that that meant we didn’t have opinion, newspapers are set up to have opinion and there was more opinion on editorial pages and Op-Ed pages than I think there was in general on television with the Fairness Doctrine.

I think that the, the problem … in many cases with the owners, the corporate owners, of, of these big enterprises is that they see themselves getting into a swamp of being accused of being in violation of a Fairness Doctrine and they solved the problem by simply going away from opinion.

Interestingly, Adolph Ochs, you know, who is the original inventor of the modern New York Times in 1896, he didn’t want to have an Editorial Page. He did not want to get near opinion at all.

And, and he had to be persuaded, but he dealt with it in a kind of a subtle kind of way. For instance, he was against women’s suffrage. The New York Times editorialized against women’s suffrage.

But, in those days, The New York Times ran on Sundays pages of Letters to the Editor and many of those letters embraced and endorsed women’s suffrage so much so that when it passed the women’s suffrage movement saluted Adolph Ochs for giving them all that space on the Letters to the Editor page.

I think that that is sort of where I am. I believe that it’s better to let people have their say and to not let government get involved because I don’t trust government to be wise in their, in their, in their management of something like this.

I look at how politics can wax and wane, I feel uncomfortable.

HEFFNER: And government’s requirement of … for testimony by journalists? How you … how do you relate to that?

JONES: If I could wave a magic wand and create a, a, an appropriate shield for journalists to protect anonymous sources, legally, I would.

I also believe that journalists … it’s a, it’s an interesting thing about journalists being viewed as the, as the scoundrels many people consider us to be.

I really believe that most of the journalists that I know … if they promised a source confidentiality, they would be willing to pay the price to keep that promise. Even if it meant being in defiance of the courts.

It’s an interesting ethical question. I believe that people have an ethical responsibility to keep their word in a situation like that even if it comes at the cost of a, you know, a jail term. That said, I once had Bob Woodward and, and, and Carl Bernstein at, at Harvard on the anniversary of their Watergate coverage. And I asked them a question not unlike this … in that I said, “What if an anonymous source you had promised anonymity to … it turned out was going to be, if they were not identified, responsible for sending an innocent to jail. Or even to be executed. What would you do? Would you betray that honesty? Would you, would you betray that promise?

They were very uncomfortable with that question and I think that they, basically never, gave me a straight answer. My point is that I don’t think you can come up with any journalism ethical standard that you can’t find some reason or some situation imagined that would make it something that you would have to go in the opposite direction.

It is situational ethics. But that doesn’t mean it’s not based on a very strong ethical core which I believe it is.

HEFFNER: Which brings me back to the question … what is your own position on a shield law?

JONES: I’m for it.

HEFFNER: A strong one?

JONES: A strong shield law, but not a shield law that is without an understanding that people have the, the, you know, the right to a fair trial. I think that the thing that I would be for is the compromise that existed, you know, until relatively recently which, to a certain extent, I guess maybe still does. Which is that journalists should not be compelled to testify unless there is some absolutely urgent reason why their testimony is critical to having justice done.

And then I think that that is a different situation. I think what increasingly you may have, without a shield law, is that journalists are going to be put in the position of being policeman. That I think would be a very bad thing.

If a journalist goes out and covers something that is revealing to the public and is not against the law, but is something would be involved and form a situation that would be illegal … are they going to be the primary vehicles for bringing someone to trial? It seems to me they should be the last person to do that. On the other hand …

HEFFNER: But how do you manage that?

JONES: On the … well, I think that you have a court that has the flexibility to make that kind of a judgment and that says, “You have to demonstrate, Mr. District Attorney, that you can’t get this information any other way and that this is critical to the case and the cause of justice. If you do that, then I’m willing to, to compel the testimony”. But short of that I think the journalists should be able to protect the identity of their source.

HEFFNER: And do you see any need for any legislation at all in this area?

JONES: Yeah. I mean I would love to have, I mean some legislation has been introduced that would allow like a newspaper in bankruptcy to emerge from bankruptcy as a non-profit organization and be run as a non-profit. That may be the solution for some newspapers to stay in business. I don’t know … that’s something that I would certainly support.

But I don’t think that the solution … main solution … ultimate solution for preserving the news is going to be one in which the government is going to take the major role. I think it’s going to be a commercial one. I think our tradition, our culture has been one that has a … a, a media that is based on commerce.

I think that probably is our way. That’s the American style. That’s not the style in Europe, but it’s our style. And I think that we are probably going to try to be … I think we’re going to be more likely to find an answer that’s a commercial one than not.

That said, I think that non-profits and other institutions that recognize the importance of this kind of reporting and this kind of journalism, I think that their support now, in this critical hour is extremely important. And I welcome it. I welcome it. But as you and I know, foundations change their priorities. Foundations aren’t set up to be permanently funding anything. They change what they want to do. That’s why I think an endowment, for instance, from a couple of friendly billionaires would be wonderful. But depending on foundation support can be, you know, capricious.

I think that an economic solution that’s sustainable … and we haven’t got that yet … that would be much preferable.

HEFFNER: What do you think we’re going to have? What do you … how do you really read the future for hard core news?

JONES: I know you think I’m a Pollyanna-ish in this and I don’t feel like I am. I feel like I’m not pessimistic, though. I feel like it’s, it’s very much like when the railroad business was faced with losing its, its passenger service around the country to airplanes and to automobiles. I think that that’s what newspapers are in.

A lot of people think that newspapers are like silent movies when the “talkies” emerged. I don’t think that. I think they’re like railroads. And I think that railroads got their act together and they are now doing … not what they did before, but they have found a very powerful, sustainable, powerful economic role. They carry two-thirds of the country’s freight and I think that newspapers and news organizations of that ilk, that are serious, are going to have to find their way to carry the freight.

HEFFNER: When we go to Congress and we talk about an appropriation of lots and lots of money for the railroads … do you feel that the parallel with the press is legitimate?

JONES: I would say that would be not my solution, as I say. I’m, I’m for a commercial solution. I’m not for one that depends on the largess of government and the good will of Congress.

HEFFNER: But certainly in passenger trains …

JONES: The passenger trains have gone away. The newspaper business, like the railroad business, as far as I’m concerned, has not been … has not succeeded because of government. Now passenger service, such as it is, as far as …

HEFFNER: Is government.

JONES: That, that’s government … but that’s not what … that’s not what made rail … that’s not the railroad business. The railroad business, which is a very profitable business is a freight business. It’s not the passenger business. They lost the passenger business.

We have lost the, the sort of control of, of a monopoly situation as far as news is concerned. Those days are gone. We live in a digital world and they’re going to have to adapt to a digital world, adapt to it and profit and prosper by it, I would hope.

But it’s not going to be the same as it was. Any newspaper that thinks we’re going back to the good old days is delusional. That said, it doesn’t mean that they’re headed for, you know, silent movie status. I don’t think they are.

HEFFNER: Now, let’s go back for a moment to this question of … not government and, and the press, but let’s take wartime involvements by the press. Yes, government. Certainly a government in power at the time, Civil War, World War, World War II, very different from … and add Vietnam to the others … very different from what’s happened in Iraq.

JONES: Well, you know, I think Americans live in a bit of a fantasy about the First Amendment. I think they think that the First Amendment guarantees that we take for granted … have always been there since the First Amendment was created with the Bill of Rights. That’s just not the case.

The First Amendment as we know it today, with the protections that we know it today … that’s … that dates from the, you know, 1930s really. I think that the point is that especially in times of stress like war … it is very tenuous to think that the First Amendment is not something that could be seriously eroded as it was for many, many, many years in this country.

World War I if you expressed opposition to World War I after it was declared you could go to jail. In fact …

HEFFNER: And you did.

JONES: … a lot of people did. Right. And, and, I think that the point is that the, the First Amendment and those powers of, of, of protection of the right to speak … those are as powerful and interpreted as literally and broadly as the Supreme Court says they are. And in a time of war that could be something that is very, very seriously in jeopardy.

We live in a time when we have already experienced what happened after 9/11 and the, and the …you know, the fear that gripped this country and the, and the, the willingness that many people had … and much of the population had to simply give up the, the rights of, of, of aggressive free speech because people were afraid.

If we have another incident, comparable to that, worse than that … I don’t know what would happen. I do know this. That it would be, in my opinion, complacent foolishness to think that the First Amendment is something that isn’t, in its own way, fragile. And needs to be guarded and protected. I believe that the kind of journalism that I’m trying … that I believe absolutely needs to be sustained is the greatest bulwark for that kind of, of protection.

I think we need not just free speech, but informed speech. And I think if we become a country that sort of loses that sort of sense of, of, of the value of factual reported truth … then along with that will go, I think, a lot of our determination to protect things like the culture of objectivity, journalism ethics and a kind of protection that the free speech is assumed to provide automatically and in all cases which I think history has shown … it is not the case that it did.

HEFFNER: You know I have strange conflicted feelings about your saying that because when I read what you said in your wonderful book, I thought to myself, “Of course that’s true.” As a historian I know that perfectly well. I don’t want to believe it.

JONES: Yeah.

HEFFNER: I want us to believe that this is part of our national heritage from the very beginning. You put your finger on something terribly frightening.

JONES: Well, when I’ve discovered this and I also … I discovered it and then it was there to be learned, but most people don’t know what and haven’t thought about it. They haven’t looked at it carefully.

But the reality is that it’s more fragile than we believe. And it’s new. It’s new, it’s not something that has always been there at all.

HEFFNER: Don’t say that too loudly, please.

JONES: (Laughter) Well …

HEFFNER: The Supreme Court Justices may listen in.

JONES: Well, I think that when you have an Administration that declared a state of permanent war, and justified virtually anything on the basis that we were at war … you see how tenuous guarantees of the sort that we take for granted can be.

HEFFNER: But that, of course, puts us right back in an awful lot of trouble.

JONES: Oh, we’re in plenty of trouble. There’s no question about it. That’s what this book is about. It’s about saying “We’re in trouble. We need to look at it. We need to think hard about it, we need to do something about it.”

HEFFNER: But it isn’t saying we need to do something about it because here our liberties which we’ve enjoyed always, throughout the history of this Republic …

JONES: Well …

HEFFNER: … are being eroded. You’re saying, quite correctly, this is a very new business.

JONES: Well, it’s a new business, but we’ve come to think of it as the way it should be. I’m glad that we feel that way. I don’t think there are many people who don’t believe that the First Amendment is vitally important to their sense of who they are as Americans, no matter what their political persuasion is.

HEFFNER: But if it hasn’t played a major role.

JONES: Oh, it has.

HEFFNER: Well …

JONES: In the … in the 20th century …

HEFFNER: In the …

JONES: … it’s been enormous.

HEFFNER: In the mid-20th century on … but if it hadn’t played a major role in a century and a half and more before then, what right do we have to bemoan its mis-use in our estimation?

JONES: Well, I think that, that all you have to do is go tell someone that their First Amendment rights are going to be taken away from them. And you would probably find that it’s a …

HEFFNER: That they believe in it.

JONES: …something that they believe in. I, I honestly think that we always believed in the ideal, but I think that the reality and the execution were simply not the same.

And I think that the, the fact is that, you know, there was great muck-raking reporting at the same time the First Amendment … you know … was not there to be a guarantor of those things.

It depended on where you were and how it was interpreted and what state laws were and how that was all done. But the point is now we’ve come to understand that this is our right to speak. And I think that we will protect that, but I think that we need to understand we need to protect that. It’s not something that goes without saying.

HEFFNER: Alex Jones, we’ve talked and talked and talked and I think we ought to read, read, read and read “Losing The News” and thank you so much for joining me today.

JONES: Thank you. It was my great pleasure.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.” And do visit The Open Mind website at theopenmind.tv.

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.

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