Michael Gartner

A Man for All Journalistic Seasons

VTR Date: December 8, 2000

Guest: Gartner, Michael


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Michael Gartner
Title: “A Man For All Journalistic Seasons”
VTR: 12/8/00

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And usually I think when you sit with a third generation Iowa newspaper man, a guy who was Page One Editor of The Wall Street Journal, who has edited and/or owned or presided major mid-American newspapers, who has been President of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, who is a lawyer, has won the Pulitzer Prize, was the President of NBC News, and now, for gosh-sakes is part owner of the Iowa Cubs, you might want to talk with him about those fanciful ventures.

Not I, however, for with Michael Gartner here with me on The Open Mind at long last, I want to talk with him about his newest journalistic incarnation at Brill’s Content, where he has succeeded Bill Kovach in the disputably enviable job as Ombudsman. And I may just do best now by asking my peripatetic guest just why, or maybe what do you do as an Ombudsman.

GARTNER: Ah, well, I think you have to admire Steve Brill for having an Ombudsman in a magazine …

HEFFNER: Or think that he’s crazy?

GARTNER: … or think that he’s crazy [laughter]. One or the other. Because it’s a … it was a pretty noble thing to do, to say to somebody “you can rip me to pieces in my own magazine, and I don’t have the power to change one word, and I can respond to you, but then you can have the last word and respond to me. And we’ll do this for two years”. So, you have to admire him, first of all for doing that. And the way I do it …and I can do anything I want. I can criticize his magazine, I can write a little essay, I suppose I could write about the Iowa Cubs if I wanted to. So, it’s nice. I don’t. What I do is … in reading its myself, I look at things that I think are interesting or questionable or that I might have some curiosity about. And then I get quite a bit of e-mail from readers on various articles. And if I think that that’s something that is, will be interesting to the reader, that is journalistically interesting, procedure, how you do that … if I think there’s a story that was unfair … or unbalanced, I just investigate it. I call up the reporter from Brill’s, I talk to him. I call up the people he talked to, I call up the people who e-mailed in and then I write a piece. And usually it’s a critical piece. I mean there’s no use writing a piece. I mean there’s no use writing a piece that says, “Gee wasn’t such-and-such great in Brill’s last week … last month”. Although there is terrific amount of good stuff in the magazine. But sometimes I find, maybe in search of an edge, a reporter has gone farther than I think he or she should have gone. And then I say that in the magazine. It’s not a full-time job. I have other full-time jobs at the moment. But it …so I don’t look into every single complaint that comes in and re-report and re-investigate every story. I mean that would take five people to do. I just find something that I think would be interesting to the readers, or sometimes I’ll just write a little essay about journalism, if I think that’s interesting.

HEFFNER: Well, let me ask you about this matter of journalists looking for an edge …


HEFFNER: … are we edgier this day in the business?

GARTNER: Oh, sure. I mean it’s on television, it’s in The New York Times, it’s everywhere, I think. I don’t why. You know I … my first job, more than forty years ago, first full time newspaper job was at The Wall Street Journal. And I learned under editors there that you never wanted an edge. You, you … you know, you wanted …

HEFFNER: You’re not now talking about Bob Bartley?

GARTNER: No, no … I’m talking about a man named Bill Krueger and men named Warren Phillips and Ed Cooney and Fred Taylor … and all great editors and great human beings. And they wouldn’t allow that. So then when I became Page One Editor of the Journal I, I wouldn’t allow it either. I mean you prized thoroughness and accuracy and graceful writing and sometimes timeliness, but sometimes timeliness didn’t make any difference. And those were the qualities you prized. You weren’t out to make news and you weren’t out to hype news and you weren’t out to promote a person or a cause. And I think that in some publications today and with some reporters and maybe some editors today that’s changed. That’s not necessarily bad, it’s just different.

HEFFNER: Wait a minute. You’re saying “not necessarily bad”. Do you feel that way?

GARTNER: Well, I …

HEFFNER: Come on.

GARTNER: For the generation that reads that, you see I’m, I’m beyond the demographic groups where advertisers care about anybody. It’s like my father’s 99 and my mother’s 92, and my mother was … when I was President of NBC, my mother … President of NBC News, my mother was complaining that they had taken off her favorite show. And I said, well you know they probably took it off because you liked it, and she said, “What do you mean?”. And I said, “if you liked the show chances are younger people don’t”. And she said, “Well, why do I make a difference?” And I said, “When was the last time you bought a car, when was the last time you bought a refrigerator? You know the advertisers don’t care about you.” I’m in that demographic group now where the advertisers don’t care about me. And I suspect that younger readers and younger viewers like that kind of journalism.

HEFFNER: That kind of edgy journalism?

GARTNER: Yeah. I don’t, but I think some people do.

HEFFNER: But, are you convinced. I mean obviously some one is, or some many persons in charge are convinced that that edginess is a plus.

GARTNER: Well, sure, I mean because you see it everywhere. You see it everywhere from snide little comments on the bottom of people items, to stories … the most difficult ones are the stories that there’s not a bad fact in them … there’s not a bad fact in the story. But they’re just wrong. They’re wrong in context, they’re wrong in balance and that’s what you see, I think, sometimes. On the other hand, journalism today is probably greater than it’s every been.

HEFFNER: Why do you say that?

GARTNER: First of all there’s more of it, if you include cable TV and if you include on-line journalism and if you include alternative weeklies. I mean it’s everywhere. The problem, of course, is that you don’t know what to believe and what not to believe, so you have to become, you have to become you’re own, you’re own editor really, and, and so you have to become pretty savvy about things that only editors and TV news directors have to be savvy about.

HEFFNER: But, Mike, Bill Kovach, when he was here seemed to indicate his own believe that being edgy this way is not in the long run pay off. That people get tired of edginess … they become distrustful or mistrustful of edginess, that the believability of journalism has taken a real “hit” in recent years. Is there something to that?

GARTNER: Maybe. But maybe Bill is … he’s certainly as old-fashioned as I am in his, in his believes. And maybe his prediction of the future is right and mine, and mine is wrong. But the other side of coin is not that people will abandon it, but that people will become savvy about it. And become better news consumers than they would have been had they had editors and news directors making judgments for them. If they have to make their own judgments maybe they’ll become more sophisticated. I don’t know.

HEFFNER: Is there any Indication, now that they’re turning off?

GARTNER: Well, to lose … TV news ratings aren’t, aren’t that great, but that’s maybe because there’s so much more competition. Newspaper circulation is declining and penetration is certainly declining. But I don’t know what readership is of all these alternative weeklies, publications you can pick up. I don’t know how many people are going on to the web to get their news. I get news that way every day. I, I go on to the Internet to get news and so people who do that, what time are they sacrificing to use that. With me, it’s I don’t watch as much television. But others maybe they don’t read as many newspapers, or maybe they don’t read as many books, or maybe they don’t talk to their spouses much. Or maybe they don’t walk the dog as much, or, or whatever. But you know time is finite.

HEFFNER: What are we losing? What are we losing as a people, as the believability quotient, perhaps goes down, as the edge is more and more made clear to us.

GARTNER: I don’t know that we’re, that we’re losing anything. It’s just different. It’s just different. It’s not necessarily bad, it’s not necessarily good. Maybe we’re gaining something, maybe we’re losing something. But times change. And journalism changes. I mean, you know, if you go down to the Newseum in, in Washington and you look at some of the journalism, and if you read the journalism histories and if you look at some of the rouges and scoundrels in journalism over the years, I mean this is a pretty sedate crowd that we’re dealing with today. Part of it is probably because there’s a rich crowd today.

HEFFNER: What do you mean?

GARTNER: Well, I mean, you know, when you have journalists making well over a million dollars a year, when you have journalists getting $50,000, $60,000 for a speech. It’s a little bit different than the journalists who … again, it’s not necessarily bad or good, it’s just different. But it’s certainly different than the ones who were hanging out in the bar and wondering where their next, where their next dollar was going to come from. I mean journalists are celebrities today.

HEFFNER: Why are you being quite so non-judgmental. You have several times said, “Well, it maybe good, it maybe bad”, or …

GARTNER: Well, because I just don’t know.

HEFFNER: Of course …

GARTNER: I’ve never been, I’ve never been known as a person who didn’t shoot from the hip, but …

HEFFNER: That’s what I mean …

GARTNER: … but I just don’t know what’s right or what’s wrong. All I know is it’s changing. I mean I’ve spent my entire life in journalism. My father spent his entire life in journalism. My grandfather did his. And I’ve learned it from the time I was five years old and started hanging out in the newsroom where my father worked. And I’ve seen all these changes and, and I’ve seen revolutions that were going to put journalism out of business and every single one of them made journalism better. Ever single technical revolution made journalism much, much better. The ones that were going to put us out of business and so I just don’t like to rush to judgment about something, something like that. My own view is I don’t like it. My own view is I don’t like it. My own view is as an editor I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t tolerate it from the young people who worked for me, or the old people who worked for me. As a consumer of news I don’t like it. But I don’t necessarily think that it’s bad for America. I have a friend, a judge, who worries about the people who self-medicate over the Internet. He says, you know you can go on and you can look up a disease and you can read all about it, and you’re liable to kill yourself. And he says, you know, the same can be true with news, you’re liable to kill yourself if you, if you get all your news over the Internet because you don’t know what’s true and what isn’t true, and you may go off in a wrong direction.

HEFFNER: What about that?

GARTNER: I believe that to be true. And that’s why I think that … well, I wrote a column not long ago about that in Brill’s, about what you have to know these days to be, to be a knowledgeable consumer of news. The questions you have to ask yourself. The questions that an editor normally … that an editor asks himself or herself a thousand times a day, and a TV news director asks a thousand times a day when it … before they’ll put it in their newspaper or on their TV show. Nobody asks those questions before they go on a lot of websites. And so you have to learn, you have to become sophisticated and ask yourself those questions.

HEFFNER: Well, you know, I read that essay, your “Ten Questions As You Read, Watch and Surf”. I didn’t think you were necessarily talking about web, or at least the web alone.

GARTNER: No, I’m talking about the web alone. I say, “As You Read, Watch and Surf”, and I’m talking about, I’m talking about newspapers, I’m talking about television as well and because what’s happened is … often in the rush for competitiveness the editor and the news director don’t have the time to set back and ask those questions that you used to be able to ask when you were on a 24 hour news cycle. Now you’re on a 24 second news cycle. So all of that, all of that has changed. The time you have to determine fact from fiction has changed. The competitive factors have all changed and so the editors and the news directors have had to change as well. Therefore, there’s more of a burden on you as the watcher, the reader and the surfer.

HEFFNER: You know, when I’ve entertained my audience by having news people here and I choose my words carefully … almost invariably, Mike, there is a denial of the power and therefore of the responsibility of the press. Do you think this is something new? I mean they say, “Nobody in here but us chicken. We don’ t have any influence …”

GARTNER: Oh, well, you know editors have always said that, but they know how much … and TV news directors have always said, but they know it’s an immensely powerful … they’re immensely powerful mediums, or media, that … you know, television elected John … the television debates elected John F. Kennedy. Television … Walter Cronkite ended a war. So you can’t deny the power. I, until fairly recently owned and edited a small newspaper in Ames, Iowa. And my editorials could elect a City Councilman or a School Board member. There’s just no question about it. I don’t think I ever endorsed anybody who didn’t win.

HEFFNER: Am I right or wrong or indifferent when I suspect that the denial of power is a means of avoiding the responsibility for doing what should be done.

GARTNER: Well, sure. You know, I mean responsibility is a kind of difficult word because you have every right to be irresponsible under the First Amendment. And in fact the First Amendment is there to defend the irresponsible, the outrageous and the outlandish and the outspoken. And so you have absolutely the right and the power to be irresponsible. The mainstream press, I think, tries to be responsible. It’s a self-imposed, it’s a self-imposed requirement. It can’t be imposed by Congress, it can’t be imposed by anybody but your owner, your editor and your reader. Each of those can demand a responsibility. The reader … if the reader believes you’re being irresponsible, or the viewer, he or she will leave. If the owner believes you’re being irresponsible and want you to be responsible, he or she will fire you. And if the editor … say you’re the editor or the news director you have a sense of what’s responsibility and what isn’t. The great thing about America, of course, is that if there are 1,700 daily newspapers in this country, there’s 1,700 definitions of what’s responsible. If there’s 900 VHF TV stations, or 600 … there’s 600 definitions of what’s responsible. Or maybe there’s 1,000 … the news director, the station’s manager and the owners. So, that’s the great glory of a free press … is that nobody will agree on a, on a certifiable definition of “responsible”.

HEFFNER: Suppose we don’t agree on a certifiable definition of “responsibility”, is there a responsibility to be responsible?

GARTNER: Well, it depends on who you are and what your publication is.

HEFFNER: What do you mean?

GARTNER: I don’t think that a advocacy publication has necessarily a, a responsibility to be responsible. I believe that the editor of an advocacy publication has a responsibility to be a great advocate, like a lawyer in a criminal case has a responsibility to be a great advocate …


GARTNER: … and may let … and may be a murderer off. And, you know, you can’t say “The press”, you can’t even say “television”. I learned one thing when I was at NBC and maybe only one thing, and that is when people talked about affiliates … the affiliate body … there is no such thing as the “affiliate body”. There were 210 people with 210 different ideas. And it’s the same with your readership. And it’s the same with the press. I mean what is “the Press”? A church bulletin is the press. An advocacy publication is the press. The press has … is on the far right and on the far left.

HEFFNER: Okay, okay. Let’s accept that fact that advocacy …

GARTNER: Did I wear you down on that one?

HEFFNER: You, you wore me down …

GARTNER: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: … because it means then I can’t ask you the question …

GARTNER: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: … the follow-up questions, which really have to do with the general press. Not the advocacy press.


HEFFNER: And I wondered … there was a concern sometime ago and I think there is a concern now, but this concern about the responsibility of the press led to a National News Council …


HEFFNER: … and after a while it went kaput.


HEFFNER: How do you feel about such a Council?

GARTNER: I never really liked News Councils.

HEFFNER: Aren’t you a News Council in yourself, as an Ombudsman?

GARTNER: I never really liked Ombudsmen, to tell the truth. I never had one at The Des Moines Register which I ran for ten years, and we never had one at The Wall Street Journal. You listed at the beginning the jobs I’ve held … it’s clear I can’t hold a job, from listening to that. But I always thought the editor should be his or her own Ombudsman. You should answer your own phone, you should have a listed phone number at home, you should … your door should always be open, you should listen very carefully. You know most people have complaints, think they’re legitimate, and probably half of them are legitimate, nobody is right all the time, certainly newspapers aren’t right all the time. So I thought you should listen very carefully and if the person was right, you should go correct those errors, prominently and in a straightforward manner.

HEFFNER: But listen, you’re talking about “shoulds” … should, should, should … would, would, would … we know it doesn’t happen.

GARTNER: it does happen a lot of places, it does happen a lot of places. I mean look at The New York Times, and this thing called an “Editor’s Note” that they run. I mean that’s, you know, that’s really something that a, that a big powerful newspaper would, would run something called an “Editor’s Note” that says, sometimes in a convoluted way and sometimes in a straightforward way, “well you know, the facts in that story were right, but the tone was wrong. Or the thrust was wrong”. I mean that’s, that’s quite an admission, an admission to make. And I think it’s a great thing. And other newspapers do that, too. And they do have Ombudsmen, and that’s why I, why I praise Steve Brill. Even though I’ve never been a big fan of Ombudsmen, now that, now that I am one I understand why he wanted one.

HEFFNER: Let’s go back to the question of a National News Council, or the equivalent. You’re really unequivocally opposed to something like that.

GARTNER: Oh, in my old age I guess I’m … I equivocate more than I used to on some, on some issues. I don’t see it as harmful. I never saw it as harmful. I just never saw it as beneficial. I just saw it as bureaucratic.

HEFFNER: Bureaucratic. Okay. Let me, let me, let me move to this question of … back to this question of responsibility. You, you said something about the First Amendment …

GARTNER: Yes, I mean …

HEFFNER: …. almost as if you believe that the Founders had created, had added the Ten Amendments, the first ten and particularly the First Amendment, almost to warrant that newspaper editors would say, “Hey, I can do anything I damn please … I don’t have the responsibility …”

GARTNER: Well, look a the press when the Bill of Rights was written. I mean, talk about scurrilous, scandalous press. It was then, and yet the Founders thought that freedom, freedom for scoundrels was better than government intervention. And that’s turned out to be true.

HEFFNER: Don’t you think that was a function of our coming out of a revolution where the freedom of the press was necessary and freedom generally was so necessary to oppose the oppressor, the King?

GARTNER: I think that was part of it, but I think it was more of a vision than a reaction. I think that it was … it’s what set this nation apart then and sets this nation apart now. And I don’t believe that it was necessarily … “oh, this was terrible. This was terrible in the Colonies, or this was terrible in England”. I think it was more of “this is what we need to be a free nation. We need freedom of religion, we need freedom of speech, we need freedom of the press, we need freedom of assembly, we need freedom to petition our government”. And those five freedoms, and you couple those with the independent judiciary and you have a system that is unmatchable and unbeatable anywhere and that has survived for more than 200 years more often in glory than in shame.

HEFFNER: And you feel that it is appropriate to take an absolutist approach to each of those freedoms.

GARTNER: Yeah. Of course there’s a practical reason for that … it’s much easier to defend an absolutist approach …


GARTNER: … than to say, “Well here’s where I draw the line on religion, here’s where I draw the line on press, here’s where I draw the line on assembly”. So you can just say, “I’m with Justice Black, and Justice Brennan, and Justice Douglas and I’m an absolutist”. Nobody’s is an absolutist. Of course, there are places …

HEFFNER: So where do you draw the line …

GARTNER: I don’t know. I haven’t seen the place yet, where I would draw the line.

HEFFNER: Seriously?

GARTNER: Seriously. But I suspect there is a line somewhere that I would, that I would draw.

HEFFNER: We’re not going to yell “Fire” in a crowed theater …

GARTNER: At least not falsely. I have a friend, same Judge I talked about earlier who’s a great First Amendment advocate and not too long ago, it was a slow and so I just e-mailed him. I said, what if the theater (nothing at all, no introductory note or anything) …I just sent him an e-mail says, “what if the theater is only half full”. He knew exactly what I was talking about. And no, your not going to probably … falsely yell “Fire” in a crowded theater. But nobody ever has.

HEFFNER: Do you …

GARTNER: … maybe if somebody did, I would defend it, I don’t know. I mean there are certain, there are certain things that, that case law now rules beyond the First Amendment. Well, I mean television’s First Amendment rights are very, very limited. You couldn’t advertise tobacco on television, when you could advertise it in the press and on billboards. You had … the reason “Sixty Minutes” is on on Sunday nights is because you had to have one hour of news or family programming on Sunday night, prime time. That’s why Disney was on so long, on ABC or NBC, or whatever it was. And “Sixty Minutes”. You have to sell politicians commercials at a favorable rate. Newspapers don’t have to. You can only have so many minutes of commercials per hour Saturday mornings. Newspapers don’t have anything like that. You have to have children’s programming on Saturday mornings. Newspapers don’t have anything like. You have the Fairness … or had … the Fairness Doctrine, the equal time rule. You had all of those things in television that weren’t in, in the print press at all.

HEFFNER: Mike, as the former President of NBC News you know what I mean when I say, “I just got a 30 second …


HEFFNER: … signal”. But let me ask you in the few seconds Fairness Doctrine … would you embrace it again?

GARTNER: No. It’s outrageous. It stifled controversy. It stifled the use of … the production of issues of interest in controversy.

HEFFNER: Michael Gartner I appreciate so much your joining me today on The Open Mind …

GARTNER: It’s great to be with you.

HEFFNER: Good. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. 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.