The Press: Power AND Responsibility

GUEST: Stephen B. Shepard
VTR: 12/05/2005

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind … and I have reason to hope that when I ask my journalist guest today about the power and therefore the responsibility of the press in contemporary America, he won’t just dismiss the notion with some version of the usual response that I’ve so often gotten over the years from other press people, that essentially “there’s no one in here but us chickens”. In other words, “We print and electronic journalists don’t really have all that much power … nor, therefore, all that much responsibility”.

For Stephen Shepard not only has had a stellar career in journalism himself … during which he was variously senior editor for national affairs at Newsweek, then executive editor and finally editor-in-chief at Business Week … he is now the founding Dean of the brand new Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York.

And since he is now about to teach journalists, I trust it’s not unfair of me to ask Dean Shepard if he doesn’t have some pretty darn strong convictions about his and their profession’s power AND responsibilities. That’s a big question to throw at you.

SHEPARD: And it also comes at a time of enormous change for the media. Technological change, the Internet, citizen’s journalism, blogging. And also a time when the press is under great attack for ethical transgressions. And, and being politicized and being attacked on political grounds from both the Left and the Right. So, this is a heck of a time to be starting a graduate school of journalism and a heck of a time to be thinking about the issues facing journalism.

HEFFNER: Do you feel that the technological changes are in any way modifying the matter of press ethics, press responsibilities?

SHEPARD: Sure. First of all, the whole appearance of blogs as a kind of reality check, fact checking, critical entity of the traditional mainstream media is, is brand new and raising a lot of issues about the press. Some of it fair, where things are wrong. For example the 60 Minutes show on George Bush’s National Guard Service where the blogs were among the first to point out mistakes. To cases where the blogs are wrong and are attacking with no good reason. But it is forcing mainstream media to look at itself much more carefully and this is going to continue.

HEFFNER: How can the blogs be taken seriously given the fact that when I read Business Week I know there’s been an editorial process, people trained and people with a sense of a profession creating the magazine. Can’t do that with the blogs.

SHEPARD: Well, with some of them you can. You know, it’s very hard to talk in general about “the” media or blogs because there are certain blogs that are just rumor mills and there are certain blogs that are done by responsible people that are really quite good and quite interesting, so …

HEFFNER: Tell me what you think the proportion of the one to the other is?

SHEPARD: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Seriously.

SHEPARD: Well, first of all the world of blogs … a lot of it is about special interests that have nothing to do with journalism. You know if you’re a stamp collector, you can go on … find blogs of like-minded collectors and wonderful discussions and that has nothing to do with the media.

But the blogs that pay attention to the media … I would say, well, the ones that aren’t politicized … I would say that probably more than half are responsible.

HEFFNER: Seriously, more than half of the blogs. But now, wait a minute … you …

SHEPARD: The ones that aren’t politicized … yeah, I made an exception … because, because if you are politicized, meaning you have a Right Wing point of view or a Left Wing point of view … you automatically are coming at the subject from a, a preconceived notion. And that to me is suspect. Okay. I mean there’s a role for that. I’m not saying they shouldn’t exist. I’m just simply saying you have to take it with a grain of salt. But that is true of mainstream media, too. There are plenty of publications that have a political agenda as well.

HEFFNER: Well, I’m not a mathematician, as you well know, but I go back again to the question of proportion. My sense …

SHEPARD: Yeah.

HEFFNER: … and I, I really expect that you’re going to correct me from what you’ve said …

SHEPARD: Yeah.

HEFFNER: … is that the blogs are largely there for a purpose, which is not true other than the larger purpose of journalism for most newspapers and journals.

SHEPARD: Yeah.

HEFFNER: Wouldn’t that be true?

SHEPARD: Well, you know, I think that they serve a different function. Okay. It is a form of citizens’ journalism in which, for the first time in … forever, really … the barriers to entry to being a media person, are, are lowered. Anyone can come in and start a blog. Just like the pamphleteers in the early days of the Republic. So, when they do it responsibly, it’s worth listening to. And I think that in many cases the so-called “citizen journalism” kind of blogs where stuff is boiling up from the community and you hear the voices of the community, ah, those are fairly interesting new developments in journalism and I think we’re going to see a lot more. It’s goes under the rubric of citizens’ journalism. And we’re going to see a lot more. And it will get … it will supplement, not replace mainstream media.

For example, if The New York Times wanted to cover a local neighborhood in Brooklyn, it might be very possible to enlist the residents, the citizens of Brooklyn to report on their own community and have it edited and screened in some way, filtered in some way to keep out stuff that’s clearly that is irresponsible … but having the voices of that community directly relate to other people, is probably a positive thing if we can have the right standards applied to it.

HEFFNER: Now, the school where you’re going to be the Dean …

SHEPARD: Yeah.

HEFFNER: … where you are the Dean is in a sense the people’s school …

SHEPARD: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: The City University. Will you orient the School of Journalism at the City University in terms of this notion of citizen journalism?

SHEPARD: Yeah. That would be one aspect of the program. We will teach traditional media print, meaning magazines and newspaper, broadcast media, radio and television and also the whole interactive journalism area, including citizens’ journalism.

So, yeah, blogging is a new tool in journalism and it is used by very respectable people as well as people, some of whom are not very respectable. So we’re going to be doing that. We’ve hired a man named Jeff Jarvis to run the interactive journals and part of the, part of the curriculum. And that will be part of what we do.

We’re going to have, in the urban reporting concentration in the school, students going out to all the borough of New York City and reporting on community news and we’re going to make available on the web a community news service that will provide to community newspapers and ethnic newspapers around the city to run as they see fit. This will be student written stories, edited under faculty supervision within the school and made available to community newspapers around the, around the city and if people want to respond, since it’s on the web and therefore is interactive, if people want to respond and post responses to what our students are writing, I think that’s wonderful.

HEFFNER: You know, probably because I’m such an old fogy …

SHEPARD: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: … that the blog idea scares the bejesus out of me. When we talk about the ethical standards, in their absence as well as presence in the journalism you and I have known …

SHEPARD: Yeah.

HEFFNER: … when I think of what the blogging may do to that still further. In fact, in one of the things that you’ve written in which you’re explaining what it is that you’re going to do … let me see if I can find … yes … you say, “Emblematic of this commitment, the school has a code of ethics that all applicants will have to sign to be considered for admission.” What is that code of ethics?

SHEPARD: Well, it defines, first of all, the extraordinary rights that the press has in this society under the US Constitution. And with those rights come responsibilities. And we’re talking about accuracy, fairness, avoidance of conflict of interest, all the things that come up.

There are rules about plagiarism, which has plagued the profession in an increasing way, it seems in the last few years. So we spell all, all this out, posted it on our website and expect the students to sign the code of ethics and adhere to it. And you know, it’s no different than what is done in the profession today.

When I was the Editor of Business Week, we had a code of ethics that all staffers had to sign once a year. They had to disclose any potential conflicts of interest, stock ownership, family members who had some other jobs that might conceivably conflict with their roles as journalists and were asking for disclosure of any potential conflict.

So the practice in the school, I don’t know whether other schools do this, conforms to the practice within the profession.

HEFFNER: You do think of it as a profession?

SHEPARD: Absolutely. And I think of our school as not so much a school … we try not to have it appear like a school, bur rather like a professional newsroom. And sure I do think of it as a profession, I think it’s a very noble profession.

HEFFNER: And how do you distinguish it in terms of professionalism from the law, medicine, engineering?

SHEPARD: Yeah. The main difference, of course, is that we do not license journalists in this society, but we do license doctors, lawyers and engineers. And we will never license journalists in this society. Nor should we. So, is it a profession that relies on self-regulation and policing itself to make sure that professional standards are upheld as to accuracy and fairness and avoidance of conflict of interest.

HEFFNER: Can you come closer to the other professions?

SHEPARD: I mean I don’t think that the absence of a licensing requirement of journalism has, over the years, made journalism any less of a, of an ethical profession than law or medicine or anything else you can name.

And by the way, there are other fields, which for example, if you get an MBA from the university, you don’t get licensed, you can go out and be a business person. You don’t even have to go to school. And you don’t have to go to school to be a journalist, either. So I don’t, I don’t think that licensing is necessarily the way to maintain professional ethical standards within a profession.

I think it has to be inbred and taught and accepted within the profession. And I think journalism over the years has done a pretty good job of it.

You know, we’re not the only ones who have had scandals. There have been plenty of scandals in, in law. Even though people have law degrees, passed the bar exam and so on. So it doesn’t guarantee that there won’t be scandals just because there’s a professional licensing requirement.

HEFFNER: Had you, some years back … maybe it just seems like some years back to me now, had any feelings, thoughts about the National News Council when it tried, in its own way …

SHEPARD: Yeah.

HEFFNER: … to bring professional responsibility into the scene.

SHEPARD: Yeah. That was a few years ago and a lot of the media simply rejected it because they felt they should be their own policeman and they didn’t want outside influence.

You know the media take it very seriously that they are independent and they don’t want anybody looking over their shoulder. As a result of a lot of what has happened lately in terms of scandals, I think there is some new thinking that is going on about Ombudsmen, for example, at various public newspapers and broadcast stations, was a recommendation of the National News Council.

HEFFNER: MmmHmmm.

SHEPARD: We’re starting to see that happen. Self-regulation by standards from the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the American Society of Magazine Editors, which are the two I’m most familiar with and I’m sure there’s something on the TV side as well.

HEFFNER: Uh, ha.

SHEPARD: (Laughter) No. Well, then there ought to be. But standards that are done voluntarily within the profession, as guidelines, can be very powerful. I’ve seen it happen in the magazine business. And I see nothing wrong with that as long as it’s voluntary and done within the profession.

Because of all the scandals, because of the growing public distrust in the media, we’re going to see more of that adopted by the press. Do you know it’s only been two years since The New York Times has had a Public Editor, an Ombudsman. A lot of this is new, and I think it’s working well.

HEFFNER: Of course, I see a conflict between that movement and the blogging movement. Do you not?

SHEPARD: A conflict between the increasing standards that newspapers and Ombudsmen …

HEFFNER: Yes.

SHEPARD: … versus the free-wheeling blog world?

HEFFNER: Yeah.

SHEPARD: Amm, yeah, they’re … at the moment very few standards in the blog world. You know, it takes time. This is a very, very new, immature part of the business. And it’s a wild West. And it’s going to take a little while to settle down and they’ll be abuses and just as there were abuses in the early days of the press and still are.

But I, I see that … I see this as a positive development, you know. I don’t like the idea that when you say “blogs” people automatically think in pejorative terms. “This is a terrible thing because they say anything they want, they’re not accountable, and so on.”

They will be accountable to their audience. And, and as it matures, there will be voluntary standards, just as there are for newspapers and magazine. We’re in the early days of this thing and so you see a lot of wild stuff. But I think it’s a healthy development because it opens up the media to ordinary people. It’s not a one-way street anymore. This whole interactivity has got to be a good thing in the long run.

HEFFNER: Do you feel about your own career, in the press, in journalism, that you’ve been like all other people or don’t you feel there’s been something that has characterized you, as a journalist, and your fellow journalists … different from me. I’m not a journalist, I’m, I’m a professor who has a program. Don’t you feel … in other words I’m asking you … why does this disturb you … this notion that we should set journalism aside?

SHEPARD: Set it aside in what, what sense?

HEFFNER: In the sense of saying it has greater responsibilities and licensing, perhaps, has to be considered.

SHEPARD: Well, I don’t think licensing, meaning a government body … and I don’t even think there should be licensing … meaning “I can turn down a license and therefore you can’t print something, or say something on the air”. I don’t believe in that at all. What I’m saying is that I don’t see anything wrong with voluntary standards within the profession, to help police itself. And indeed, it exists now.

HEFFNER: Are you satisfied with voluntarism as you’ve observed it for the few years you’ve been on this planet?

SHEPARD: Yeah. There’s no alternative …

HEFFNER: In America …

SHEPARD: There’s no alternative to it in … for the press because of the First Amendment. So that’s the only thing we can fall back on, the government can’t get in the licensing business, the way they do for engineers and lawyers and teachers and doctors. It just can’t happen in this country. Nor should it.

So, it relies on a high ethical standard and I think what the media needs to have and what I hope we’ll do in our school is to instill this ethical sensibility in young people so that when they get out in the world, they carry it with them. And I’ve tried to stand for that in my career. You know, I think we had very high ethical standards in all the publications I worked for. It doesn’t mean there aren’t problems once in a while, but you’re dealing with human beings and you’re going to have problems once in a while.

HEFFNER: And you don’t differentiate between those problems and the occasional, or the many, problems that you’ll find in the law or medicine or wherever.

SHEPARD: I’m just saying that even a licensing, as in medicine or law, does not guarantee that you won’t have problems. There have been plenty of lawyers that have been disbarred for one transgression or another. Some of them in government and some of them not.

So I, I … I don’t think that … I do think that you can define a profession with high ethical standards without licensing and, and have a very ethical and strong press. I do believe that.

HEFFNER: Do you think the press has done what it should have been doing in the recent decades. Let’s take the 21st century. The American press in the 21st century …

SHEPARD: Yeah.

HEFFNER: Judge it.

SHEPARD: The 21st century is only five years old. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Right. A lot has happened in those five years.

SHEPARD: Yes, it has. There have been a bunch of scandals and there have been mis-reporting, for example, on weapons of mass destruction. There have been sins of omission and commission.

The sins of omission were though, I think, the lack of aggressiveness on the part of the press during the build up to the Iraq war. I think there have been sins of commission where things were mis-reported. I think there are sins of commission where there has been plagiarism scandals at some of our best publications or where things of just … we’ve gotten them wrong … just plain wrong.

So, whether there’s more in the last five years than there was in the previous 5, 10, 15, 20 … I don’t know. I think partly it, it’s coming out more. There’s a heightened sense of the need for ethical responsibility, in part because of the, the blogs putting the spotlight on mainstream media, and making them more accountable.

But I don’t, I don’t know that the problem is really worse than it, it was. It’s hard to say. You know, there’s been plagiarism forever. Isolated examples, to be sure, but it has always existed. And the goal is to just make sure that any kind of plagiarism, fabrication is just gone. And, of course, it’s harder to do that in this day and age because of the technology.

You know we live in a kind of remix society in which people mingle their notes with stuff they get off the Internet; with research material … it all comes together. And more mistakes get made that are quite honest mistakes … in that sense … as well as willful plagiarism.

So I think the technology makes plagiarism, in a sense, easier than it used to be.

HEFFNER: Yeah. Certainly the schools are finding that to be true.

SHEPARD: Yeah.

HEFFNER: In many of the schools and colleges I gather that thanks to so many, many, many inputs … informational inputs that one doesn’t know where one has heard this, seen this, read this …

SHEPARD: Yeah.

HEFFNER: Now, are, are you, therefore, somewhat more forgiving. Can you be somewhat more forgiving when you find …

SHEPARD: No. I think you can’t be forgiving at all … this is … the capital crime of journalism is plagiarism.

HEFFNER: The capital crime?

SHEPARD: Yes. And that is the “no, no, no … never do it.” And I don’t think you can be forgiving … I think the penalties should be harsh. I mean they should be seen in contest and so on, how did the mistake … how did the plagiarism happen … does it look like an honest mistake … does the person have a history of any other transgressions, and so on. You need to look at it, but in general, I think, the press needs to take a very, very hard line on anything that looks like plagiarism.

HEFFNER: Well, I’m sure that they feel as strongly as you do about that issue. But I’m also aware, for instance, in my newspaper, The New York Times, and it was when I didn’t live in New York, as well as when I have.

For instance, Paul Krugman and Frank Rich OpEd columnists seem to be putting their emphasis upon the … what the press has not been doing. What it has not followed up on.

SHEPARD: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: Are you of that persuasion, too?

SHEPARD: Yeah, I think you can be critical of the press for not reporting something. Just as much as reporting something that turned out to be wrong. Yeah. Because that’s part of what of the press is supposed to do. And if it misses the story then it’s vulnerable to criticism and it ought to be that way.

HEFFNER: What do you think in, in our times … we’re taping the program as the war goes on in Iraq, there are many people who seem to feel that revealing what is going on … stories that are negative in the very real sense, are unpatriotic … they undermine, as the charge is made, the press undermined the conduct of the Vietnam War.

SHEPARD: Yeah.

HEFFNER: How do you feel about that?

SHEPARD: I basically don’t agree with it. I mean, I think that the role of the press, of an independent press, in a democratic society like ours, where the press is accorded all these freedoms, is to go and do the job as best it can … fair, completely, honestly … and the chips fall where they may. Now I’m not say you, you deliberately undermine your own troops, but I do think if reporters go and see the war as not going well, and the government says it is going well. The press has a responsibility to say, “Uh, uh … it isn’t going well”, even though they’re contradicting their own government.

HEFFNER: But what …

SHEPARD: That happened in Vietnam, and it happens now in Iraq.

HEFFNER: Well, I remember when Lyndon Johnson withdrew from the race in 1968 … having been elected by an overwhelming major in ’64 … he didn’t even try to get his parties’ nomination in ’68 because Vietnam had undermined him so.

SHEPARD: Yeah.

HEFFNER: And he went up, I think it was the day after he withdrew on television … and went up to the National Association of Broadcasters and said “Do you realize what your responsibility is?” And by that time he was out of the race and he was saying, “I wonder what would have happened if during the hard years of the Second World War, the press … electronic and print had reported, had rubbed the republic’s noses into what were our losses in that first year.

What would have happened to our ability to pursue the war? And I want what your thought is about that in the thee minutes we have left.

SHEPARD: Yeah. You know, there was a certain amount of war reporting during the Second World War that was critical of certain things. You know I … we won the war and it was clear from ’43 on that things were moving in the right direction, although not early.

Vietnam was a problem almost from the beginning and this war has been a problem. I think, you know, it’s not unpatriotic to be critical. I think that it’s the highest form of patriotism to do what you’re supposed to do in the media, which is to report the truth.

And if you look back on Vietnam, who was more right? The Johnson Administration or the media?

HEFFNER: Oh …

SHEPARD: … I think the answer’s clear … that the media was “righter” and the fact is the war ended sooner than it might have otherwise if there had been no criticism.

HEFFNER: But the matter of undermining the capacity of the people themselves to pursue the war … is that not a matter of concern for you?

SHEPARD: It depends, you know. If the, if the cause is right and the government doesn’t lie to you, then they’ll be able to have the capacity to prosecute the war. But, when you have an Administration that never admits mistakes, that presents a rosy picture, then the press has to follow through and say, this isn’t what they’re telling us. And that’s what happened in Vietnam and that’s what’s happening now.

And I think that’s what the press ought to do and I don’t think it’s unpatriotic at all.

HEFFNER: There are certainly those who disagree with you.

SHEPARD: Okay.

HEFFNER: And they sit in Washington and in the White House right now.

SHEPARD: Yeah.

HEFFNER: But, obviously, this is a subject that you’re going to have to work at with your students and I envy you the opportunity to do that. And Dean Shepard, thank you so much for joining me here on The Open Mind.

SHEPARD: Thank you very, very much.

HEFFNER: Good luck.

SHEPARD: Thanks a lot.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, and if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

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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