Michael J. O'Neill

A Print Journalist Looks at His Profession

VTR Date: September 22, 1993

Guest: O'Neill, Michael J.


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Mike O’Neill
VTR: 9/22/93
“A Print Journalist on Television’s Role in Changing the World”

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And this is the second of two programs on journalism, print and electronic, with Michael U. O’Neill, former editor of The New York Daily News, and former president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors Both programs derive, let it be noted by the readers in my audience, from my guests Times Books offering, The Roar of the Crowd: How Television and People Power are Changing the World. And perhaps well get to pick up somewhat closely to where we left off today.

Mike, we were talking about Rupert Murdoch, talking about the expansion of power, I’m sure, through satellite. What’s your fix on that?

O’NEILL: Well, that’s right. You raised the issue of whether or not someone could now use these tools, the modern mass—communication tools to control information going to the public. And I said that believe that it’s now so diffused that no one individual, no one country probably can control information the way it was controlled in the days of the totalitarian states and before television. And I

HEFFNER: And then we thought of Rupert Murdoch.

O’NEILL: Well, because when Rupert Murdoch bought controlling interest in the largest TV network in Asia, most of the stories dwelled upon the idea that here was a global media magnate who was now spreading his control over the world. And my reaction to that very same story took several different tacks. One is that it, what it revealed, the very fact that he was buying this network revealed the extraordinary new situation in Asia where millions, and in the case of China one can say more than a billion people now have access to television. It’s proof, their making the purchase, it’s proof that there’s a vast, vast, vast audience for television now in Asia that did not exist 10, 35, 20 years ago. And that in itself is testimony to a simply profound, I think, profound change in the whole social, political situation in Asia.

But secondly, I would argue that whatever control Western media

moguls can achieve through owning networks or what-have-you and global satellite systems, it will probably be temporary. Because I think we, in our own ego, our own arrogance, we tend to think that everything that we do, we are dominating the world] An in a sense, in terms of program, we were 20, 30 years ago] But we forget that India, for example, produces, is the biggest producers of movies in the world, The idea that China is going to be dominated by anybody in the West, an enormous country like that, Western television or any other alien television, think, is ridiculous.

HEFFNER: Why do you downplay the, not the power over satellite systems or whatever, but why do you downplay what has proven to be, historically, our capacity, for instance, in this part of the Western world, to understand what the psychology of the mutt is, to understand what appeals to most people? I mean, know what you say about India. Can’t gainsay that. But you’re talking about China, and you’re talking about television rather than film, Isn’t that risk of what Herb Schiller used to call cultural imperialism’ still very, very great?

O’NEILL: Well, no… Well, yes. I think that to a certain extent Western techniques, certainly, Western TV and television and programming techniques are certainly dominant in the world. A lot of Western musical tempos and music in general is currently dominant. So my argument isn’t that we are not a powerful influence still in terms of programming, or we’re not regarded by a lot of people in developing world as culturally imperialistic. All that is true. All I am arguing is that it is less true today than it was at the time of the big controversy over a new information order in the United Nations, that there are many now regional news networks in Asia, for example, in South Asia, Southeast Asia, regional networks. The interests of people, if you listen, for example, every morning, as often I do, to Radio Australia, because can’t get the BBC at that particular hour, you’ll see that what’s going on in the way of news in Asia is quite different from what were reading here in New York. We’re very concerned with Somalia, with the Palestinians, with Bosnia – Herzegovenia. If you listen to the Radio Australia in the morning you’re being concerned about East Timor, you’re being concerned about Bougainville, you’re being concerned about a whole lot of other issues. My point being is that,., And I think, by the way, Murdoch discovered that in terms of his trying to get an all – European channel. If you cannot even dominate Europe with a British – oriented kind of TV fare, how in heaven’s name are you going to dominate the whole world? Sure, the output of this country in terms of technique, etcetera, is clearly has been the most forceful, the most Influential over the last 20 or 30 years. I’m simply saying that as these tools now become available to these other countries, the idea that they’re going to be dominated by us just think is ridiculous.

HEFFNER: Yeah, but…

O’NEILL: In the long run. Not necessarily tomorrow or the next day.

HEFFNER: Well, I would beg to differ with you. In the long run…

O’NEILL: I knew you would. (Laughter)

O’NEILL: Of course you knew I would. Because you’re talking about news, and I’m really talking about a larger gestalt. I’m talking about entertainment.

O’NEILL: Right.

HEFFNER: I’m talking about the points of view that are legitimated…

O’NEILL: Right.

HEFFNER: …within the thing that we do best…

O’NEILL: Right.

HEFFNER: …entertain.

O’NEILL: Right.

HEFFNER: And so, look, we’re not going to win a battle here, because think we both would admit the same thing.

O’NEILL: Yeah, I agree with you on that. That’s right.

HEFFNER: The new information order, What about the information order that’s old, here in this country, as a print maven. I don’t want to let you get away today without talking about print. We haven’t spoken for a few years, Mike, about journalistic responsibility. And when we have, you’ve always pointed to the beady red eye of television..

O’NEILL: Right.

HEFFNER: …as the serpent in the garden.

O’NEILL: Right.

HEFFNER: Let’s put them all together, print and electronic, the news gathering and propagating elements in our society. What’s your evaluation? What’s happened? What are your judgments?

O’NEILL: Well, number one, or course, is the continuing crisis among American newspapers, the shrinking of, not necessarily circulation in absolute terms, but circulation as a percentage, or as a percentage or the total market. So that this has been an enormous concern to all or the American newspapers. And there’s a great deal or running around now trying to figure out how they can produce news or news analysis or what have you in a way that will be appealing to a society in which television now, television news has now become dominant. What I rind most depressing, I guess, in recent times, is the submersion of television, or information in general – I’m going to use the word “information” deliberately here – because the publics knowledge or what is going on in various aspects of American society and lire is coming to it in the form or entertainment, and news disguised as entertainment, or entertainment disguised as news. There’s a blurring of the lines between factual, objective kinds or information. We see that, by the way, in print too, in the controversy over the Joe M book, where it seems to be permitted nowadays to just make up quotes if you don’t have the right kind of quotes to fit a situation, And if there’s a news event, then you create a docudrama of that news event, And since a lot of the actual facts don’t fit the dramatic necessities, they’re just chucked, and they make up a lot or the drama. So what is the public getting? Where is reality? What is real and what is unreal? I think more and more we’ve having a very great difficulty of distinguishing between what is real and unreal, what is true, what is false.

HEFFNER: Well, enjoyed, in reading The Roar of the Crowd…

O’NEILL: Oh-oh.

HEFFNER: …the fact that … No, no, no. Not “Oh – oh” – I very much enjoyed the fact that you write, as Walter Lippman did in Public Opinion, you make reference to “The images on the screen are only bodiless reflections like the shadows on Plato’s cave.” And the question Is what are they reflections of, How do we, as you ask, how do we come to grips with reality? Now, isn’t that, in a sense, a function of what you print – people did back about 20 years ago in the new journalism?

O’NEILL: Well, that’s correct. I think that insofar as the new journalism used fictional techniques to tell a story, it would still remain valid if the fictional techniques were developing a storyline that was also factual. But if the new journalism, were some new journalists… (Laughter) You and I are both thinking of people like, I guess Tom Wolfe and Jimmy Breslin. I can certainly I can’t speak for all the coverage that Tom Wolfe did in his newspaper days, but certainly spent a lot of time with Jimmy Breslin And just had to say up front that he did an enormous amount of reporting, and in all the years worked with him at The News, Daily News, we did not have, we never got nailed on some fact in one of these new-journalistic-type pieces he used to do as being wrong. But anyway, I grant the point that if that certainly was a shift away from the old objective. Now, by the way, the old so – called standard of objectivity played its faults too. I was an editor in the Washington Grove United Press during the McCarthy hearings. McCarthy would call me up. He knew our business as well as I did. And he’d say, “You need a lead for the next days papers?’ He would make one up, He’d make up a complete fabrication right on the telephone. Under the rules of objectivity and the rules of news those days, you had to run with what he said, even if you personally knew it was absolutely false, If Senator Joe Blow says that the sun rises in the east, by the way, another rule is you have to go find some way that disagrees with him and get somebody to say that the sun rises in the west. So I agree with you that all these techniques are quite flawed if you, it they take us away from the heart and soul of what we should be about, and that is to deliver unbiased, insofar as we’re able, unbiased and reasonably factual information, insofar as we can determine the facts.

HEFFNER: I thought you were going to add something else. Unbiased, reasonably factual, and sufficiently explained.

O’NEILL: Yes, I agree with you, I should have added that. And I certainly agree with that. That’s right. That, by the way, is what the print journalists really have to do now, since so much of television is in the sound—byte mode.

Another great problem we have now in news coverage, Dick, is – here again we go back to the diffusion of technology – that technology now, the ability to take films, minicams, etcetera, the proliferation of local TV news programs which diminishes the role of the big networks as the mediators, if you will, in the coverage of news, the proliferation of cable outlets, you name it – in the one sense, it’s greatly expanded access to public information programming. And that certainly is good, and it is a counterpoint to the criticism during the heyday of the networks when they controlled so much that everybody was complaining that a lot of people didn’t have access. However, what also is happening in the TV – talk-show phenomenon, etcetera, is that the so-called professional journalists,’ quote – unquote, are no longer serving as mediators, if you will, and applying professional standards to a lot of the information that gets to the public. So that’s still another problem.

HEFFNER: You know, it was so fascinating that back in the fifties there was this notion, and then in the sixties, that somehow or another, multiple inputs were by themselves going to warrant, going to guarantee a greater, a better informed public opinion.

O’NEILL: And more diverse, yeah.

HEFFNER: Well, it was always this notion of diversity.

O’NEILL: Right.

HEFFNER: had my prejudices. I was in the networks. But I always wondered, how do you ever develop a hundred different inputs, the kinds of professional standards that those three networks had, talking about the electronic media.

O’NEILL: I just don’t know. I don’t know how you can do it. And meanwhile, the networks themselves, you see the intrusion of entertainment, and not only entertainment techniques, but the use of entertainment to convey a version of what was supposed to be a factual situation. And that version may be totally false.

HEFFNER: Okay. Given what we’ve said, Mike O’Neill, print journalistic statesman, elder wiseman, how do you evaluate what your profession is doing today as contrasted to a generation ago?

O’NEILL: Well, I think – and far be it from me to pick sides here. I’m not a TV journalist, so I don’t presume to speak for the TV side – but certainly on the print side I think there’s been an enormous effort, almost self-flagellating kind of an effort by the newspaper editors of the country to, first of all, define a role for themselves that gives them a meaningful and influential voice in the nation’s affairs and in informing the country, and, if you will, tills in for a lot of the, tills a lot of the gaps in knowledge in the media, in the TV media. And you’ll see in the major newspapers an effort to be much more explanatory, to be much more analytic, to do the kind of in-close-up local coverage that most television stations still, and certainly the networks, are not able to do. The Daily News here in New York, we had more reporters on the Street in New York than most networks had correspondents in the whole world. So that, think, by and large, with a lot of exceptions, it is true that there’s another countertrend going on among some newspapers to imitate television, to try to be equally entertaining, which is a hopeless effort. I think newspapers also ought to be much more alert and creative and imaginative in recognizing themselves as being perhaps an information source and develop an whole bunch of other ancillary ways to provide information and put through computer networks, you name it, so that they have a larger economic base, that they’re using the information, that they’re collecting and gathering and distributing it, a much wider base so they have a larger economic income to support the kind of reporting that still needs to be done to do the job for society.

HEFFNER: Well, as you look around the country, do you see a continuing decline in circulation, in income?

O’NEILL: Oh, yes. Well, that’s… Well, I don’t have the latest figures on income. But there’s no question that many of the papers in the country have had a very, very severe downturn in advertising revenue, which may or may not… And some people may argue that it’s cyclical, that it’s simply related to the recess think some of the people I know whose knowledge of the business side of newspapers respect believe that there is a fundamental loss of advertising revenue base in American newspapers, for a lot of reasons: shifts of retailing patterns, movement of a lot of local retail advertising over to cable, etcetera.

HEFFNER: Well, if that’s…

O’NEILL: Catalogs too.

HEFFNER: Well, it that’s the case, don’t you have to make the assumption that the economic pressure that results from that will mean the failure of more newspapers? And perhaps a continuing failure to do what you think newspapers should do?

O’NEILL: I think they’ll, there will be continuing failure by newspapers if they don’t realize that simply putting out the newspaper everyday may not be the route or the way to salvation. That they have to recognize that they have, they’re doing the basic reporting in this country. You could put all of the TV stations in New York together, and they don’t have enough reporters on the street to match probably any one of the three newspapers.

HEFFNER: But wait a minute, Mike. You’re saying the printed press is doing the basic reporting. But…

O’NEILL: Right. But they’re not…


O’NEILL: And then they distribute it in the form of a newspaper. Let’s take an example Supposing that you were covering some of the agencies of Washington – by the way, which nobody covers very well – but let’s say you’re covering the Division of Biologic Standards, just to pick something out of the, it has to do with vaccines and things like that. Now, supposing you’re covering Washington, and you’ve got all of these reporters in Washington, and ii you were to take the information coming out of that one agency every day, it would never see the light of day in most newspapers, because the story wasn’t quite big enough that day. But it’s a big story to the drug industry. You are also networking on, via computer, etcetera, networking specialized information to all these different people that will pay a premium price for it. Reuters is a good example. Reuters decided that the monetary, the information of, delivering information around the world about foreign exchanges, foreign exchange transactions every day had nothing to do with ordinary news and had nothing to do with newspapers. It had a lot to do with information that they were already gathering. And so I talked to Walter Wriston. He was trying to buy Reuters. “Why are you trying to buy Reuters?” He said, “We can’t exist without Reuters. Very simple.” Why couldn’t they exist without? Not because of the newswire, but because they were putting out an information that was vital and for which the banking industry would pay a premium price. The result was that Reuters became a major, that is, that one service became a major profit center for the wire services and equipment, and they were paying profit back to the newspaper at the same time that the Associated Press was still charging us a million dollars a year to buy our own reporting, American reporting around the country. It made no sense. Why? Because AP at that time, before Lou Boccardi, who is a terrific guy, did not recognize that they’re in the business of information, and not just in the business of producing a news story for an American newspaper. So we lost that whole battle. And that…

Well, anyway, didn’t mean to get on a…

HEFFNER: No, I’m fascinated.

O’NEILL: I didn’t mean to get on a…

HEFFNER: I’m fascinated by the fact that my friend, Mike O’Neill, in his dotage, has become a businessman.

O’NEILL: (Laughter) I beg your pardon.

HEFFNER: About becoming a businessman or dotage?

O’NEILL: (Laughter) I don’t think its dotage. No, I don’t think “dotage” is an appropriate term,

HEFFNER: Okay. In, as you approach my elderly status, you’re thinking more and more in terms of the realistic.

O’NEILL: I’m thinking of saving our business. That’s what I’m thinking of. And the idea that it’s only to produce, the only purpose for producing news is to produce it in the form of a newspaper that has to be printed in a factory and distributed by trucks? In this day and age? Have to think, the major database, one of the major databases for newspapers, information storage in this country was not created by any newspaper; it was created by… It’s lexus and nexus.

HEFFNER: Mike, I never thought I’d see the day when you’d be talking about this, not as a profession, but as a business. And we’ve reached the end of the program, so you don’t have time to respond to what I’ve just said. One last dirty crack there.

O’NEILL: Okay, Dick.

HEFFNER: Thanks so much, Mike O’Neill, for joining me today on The Open Mind.

And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope you too join us again next time. And it you’d like to share your thoughts about our program today, please write: The Open Mind, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts, send $2 in check or money order.

Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, ‘Good night, and good luck.’