Bill Kovach

American Journalism: A Critique, Part I

VTR Date: June 1, 2000

Guest: Kovach, Bill


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Bill Kovach
Title: “American Journalism: A Critique”, Part I
VTR: 6/1/00

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind, and my guest today is what one surely could call a journalist’s journalist, having been Editor of the Atlanta Journal and Constitution following two decades at The New York Times, there for a long time as its Washington Bureau Chief.

For a long time now as well, Bill Kovach has been Curator of the distinguished Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. Intriguingly enough, he has also been Ombudsman for Brill’s Content magazine.

Well, I want to begin our program today by asking my guest just where is it written — as he recently commented about proselytizing among Chieftains of media conglomerates for better and higher standards in their journalistic endeavors — where is it written that, quote, “the best economic sense is to protect the principles of quality journalism in their news organization”. Now, you know, I quoted this from that interview with you in “Editor and Publisher” in February, 2000. And as I read the optimism that you expressed with that, I wondered where is it written …

KOVACH: Yeah. Richard, it’s written throughout the history of journalism as we know it in the Western world. The very first principal of journalism was established by the very first periodicals back in the seventeenth century and the coffee houses in England when the first, essentially what we consider newspapers, were born. And they promised to provide the truth rather than gossip or edicts from the government, or make-believe-stories. The idea that they were going to… peddle the truth was an economic decision. They would make it worth your while to buy this periodical because it was going to give you something special. It was going to give you information that had been verified and you could trust. It was an economic decision. And every principle that we’ve been able to identify, that separates journalism from gossip, from propaganda, from self-interest communication … every principle, searching for the truth, keeping things in balance and proportion, an obligation to the citizen, each of those principles came into being in its first instance, as an economic decision. When Adolf Ochs comes to New York and bought The New York Times out of bankruptcy … at the early part of this century … his whole marketing device was ‘all the news that’s fit to print”. That was an economic decision. It was a decision to give information that was separate from the scandal of the tabloid and the yellow journalism that was functioning at the time. So each of these principles that we define as journalism, in the first instance was an economic decision.

HEFFNER: You know, I understand what it is that you’re saying, but I also have read “Warp Speed” …


HEFFNER: … the book that you wrote about America in the age of mixed media and the optimism that you express now and you couch it in terms of practical, realistic approach to what the history of journalism has been. How does that… stand up when you subject that history to the warp speeds…speed that you write about?

KOVACH: Because those decisions, the decisions that we write about in there, the decisions that turn journalism into info-tainment, journalism into gossip and argument, those are decisions that are made by managers and owners who have no idea what journalism is. They have journalistic institutions embedded in their organization, but they don’t know what they are. That’s one of the reasons the Committee of Concerned journalists that I chair is engaged in this process of trying to tease out of the history of journalism the principles that define journalists, that make it clear when the information you’re getting is the result of journalism and not some other self-interested communication. The reason we’re trying to develop this information is to take it into the owners, the managers and the Boardrooms of the news organizations and help them understand that they have a valuable economic organization in their midst that they’re in danger of destroying.

HEFFNER: Now, they know that they have … or they believe that they have potentially a very valuable instrument in their hands. That’s why they go about these mergers, that’s why they go about crossing media with each other.


HEFFNER: Why do you think they’re quite so foolish as not to understand what will really increase or enlarge the bottom line? Because the bottom line with them seems to be the bottom line.

KOVACH: Because they’re … they see it only as content. They see it only as content to fill the minutes and hours that they have in these huge communication systems that they put together. And they have been conditioned by the market that they worked in all their lives … they’ve been conditioned by the market to make short term decisions, to maximize profit for the next quarterly report. You can do that over a brief period of time with garbage. You can do it with info-tainment. But sooner or later you’re going to drive the audience off, as they already see now. Network television is declining … its news audience is declining almost precisely in proportion to the amount of info-tainment they put into their newscast … that they’ve move away from real journalism that provides information of substance that an audience can come back to because they need to know what the world around them is really like. They have to make important decisions about their lives on the basis of what they learn. And if what they learn is not reliable, not credible, not useful, they’ll go somewhere else.

HEFFNER: And you really feel that you can look at American…media … I won’t say “journalism” because I know the distinction you make and I respect that. That you can look at American media over the past decade and say, “Q.E.D., this has made my point about dollars and sense … spelled with an ‘s’.”

KOVACH: I think if you look at the programs that have consistently held up … 60 Minutes, which is arguably the best journalism in the magazine format in television, has been for some time … although it’s getting lighter and thinner now. Is the largest money-making…money-maker the division has had. Ted Koppel’s show in the evening is a money-making show and has the most loyal audience. They’re not losing audience … it’s the other shows. The news magazines that play fast and loose with journalism and do a lot of phony investigative pieces that are losing audience, that are going to be cut back. I think, I think you can make the case, you have to separate all of the components. You can put a new show that is relatively… bad after Oprah Winfrey and hold a good audience, simply because of the way television audiences work. You can make a show successful that way for a while. But even that’s wearing out if you look at the numbers now. Long as they can go to other sources of information that they have more reliance on, more…that they think help them more, they’ll move along eventually. People are not foolish, people are not stupid.

HEFFNER: Now how sanguine are you that you’re going to be able to go into the Board rooms, which is what you describe, you’re going to go into the corporate boardrooms and you’re going to do… your “act” …

KOVACH: Mmmmmmm.

HEFFNER: …. and they are going to respect it sufficiently and believe it sufficiently to act differently when it comes to creating info-tainment and entertainment rather than news.

KOVACH: If I didn’t think … if I didn’t think the information was not persuasive enough to at least get them to think about it, I wouldn’t waste my time on it. I’m…I feel very confident that if we have a chance to really talk about it, that it will work. I mean look what happened to ABC when they embarrassed themselves recently with the Leonardo DiCaprio thing. You know there’s nothing really wrong with ABC or anybody else trying to… bring an audience to an important subject by using a celebrity if they want to.

HEFFNER: But you say …

KOVACH: But don’t call it “journalism” when you’re going to put this young man who has no understanding of how to conduct an interview with…with someone as accomplished as Bill Clinton, who’s an advocate of environmental programs himself. Don’t call that journalism …you can call it “a conversation with the President” and draw the audience … that’s fine.

HEFFNER: You said “look what happened, though” …

KOVACH: They were embarrassed.

HEFFNER: They were embarrassed. Were they embarrassed at the teller’s desk at the bank?

KOVACH: I think they were. I think they were. Otherwise … otherwise they would make that a routine program.

HEFFNER: Well, don’t … don’t keep your fingers crossed, or don’t hang too long because we may find that to be increasingly …


HEFFNER: … routine.

KOVACH: We’ll have to wait and see. We’ll have to wait and see. I’m…I was encouraged that they were embarrassed, they were embarrassed by the way they handled that effort. And as I say, I don’t fault the effort. I fault the fact that they … the man in charge of their news division had not thought sufficiently about what he was doing to the credibility of their news report. And that’s what they were concerned about. They were significantly concerned about that or they wouldn’t have backed off. They wouldn’t have gone to the great lengths they went to say “wait a minute, we understand the difference”. They understand this … they understand that they’re tampering with something that is very valuable to them. I don’t think that … I don’t think that’s a problem.

HEFFNER: But are you sure you’re not talking about two different things … one, the principles that you and your fellow concerned journalists …

KOVACH: MmmmHmmm.

HEFFNER: want to uphold and one cheers you … and one hopes that everyone is reading Walter Lippman, that everyone is thinking about the news, journalism the way you are. But are you sure you’re not … I don’t … I beg your pardon for using the word …

KOVACH: It’s all right.

HEFFNER: … “confusing” … but are not confusing it with that question of the bottom line. I ask that because as I think back to my own days at…at the three networks, I think of CBS News and when news was a lost leader …


HEFFNER: I wonder how you can be quite as optimistic as you are.

KOVACH: [Laughter] Well, you know, maybe, maybe I am confused. But…but I won’t concede that.


KOVACH: I mean I’m going to, I’m going to make my case … going to build the case as strong as I can and I’m going to make it in every venue I can make it. And we’ll see what works. I have, I have ultimate confidence that the public is smart enough to demand what they have to have in a democratic society. I have, I have ultimate confidence in that. And I think the market forces will respond to it at some point. I just think we’re going through a…a rough patch right now where all values have been homogenized to the point that they’re lost. But they’ll separate themselves out again when the, when the mixer stops mixing, they’ll … the good will rise to the top.

HEFFNER: You know, the funny thing is you seem to be saying in the book you and Tom did, Warp Speed, that the mixer isn’t stopping.


HEFFNER: That it’s speeding up. Speeding up. Speeding up. And you’re frightened to death about what’s happening to journalism …


HEFFNER: … in the process.

KOVACH: MmmHmm. At that point, that’s exactly so. That’s why we’re doing the next book on the principles, to try to tease out the principles so we can begin to counter that development. The purpose of Warp Speed was to get some quantifiable data, some, some real facts about just what the new technology and the economic organization of news organizations that reacted to that new technology, just what it’s done to journalism. And the Clinton/Monica Lewinsky affair was the perfect story to see how the new mixed media culture worked. And what we found is what we reported there. Now we’re taking the next step. Now we have spent three years visiting with several thousand journalists around the country in forums along with academics trying to discover from the conversations just what principles define journalism. How you separate it from other forms of communication. We think we’ve done that. And we’ve studied the history of those, and as I said at the beginning, we’re comfortable, that at the beginning each of those principles came into being as the result of an economic decision to convince the public that this was something, this thing called journalism, this thing called news, this thing called the product of a news organization, was something worth paying for because it was different.

HEFFNER: You say you’re comfortable that that is the case. Would your comfort level be diminished if you were to compare the nature of America, 1900, and the nature of America, 2000? The nature, not of the news organizations …

KOVACH: MmmHmmm.

HEFFNER: … but the nature of our society.

KOVACH: Mmmmm. Mmmm. I think so. I think so. I think, I think we have a … I think we have a public now that is sufficiently… knowledgeable about the way the world works and the way the world tries to work on them. That there is an audience there to be… tapped. With the kind of journalism I believe is possible.

HEFFNER: Do you think it’s likely the picture we will see fifty years from now, a hundred years from now based upon what you say there, there is an audience that we’re likely to find increasingly a dichotomization, the very rich and the very poor. Culturally, intellectually, news-wise, educated on one side, and the rest of us on the other.

KOVACH: Oh, I worry about that. I worry about that. But I’m not sure, I’m not sure that that cannot be in part … in part … ameliorated by a quality journalism. I mean John Dewey believed that quality journalism would be the education system for on-going education for the mass of the people in this country. He and Lippmann had a disagreement about that.

HEFFNER: Indeed.

KOVACH: I tend to side with Dewey on that and tend to hope that Dewey was right. Because certainly our organized educational system is rapidly creating “haves” and “have-nots” that our society just can’t abide. It’s another reason I’m so interested in trying to work on this journalism part of the equation because I really believe there is a growing public out there that needs to be reached by quality journalism. They’re not being reached now because they’ve been demographically read out of even the best news organizations, even the best newspapers don’t particularly want to reach that audience because it can’t sell them to advertisers.

HEFFNER: Well, Dick Salant used to say, about the public, and its quest for “real news” … how are you going to build an appetite for filet mignon if you feed them only raw hamburger?

KOVACH: Exactly. Exactly.

HEFFNER: Nice thought. And …
KOVACH: And I think it’s true.

HEFFNER: I’m sure it’s true. But the question then is what can be done about it?

KOVACH: See, I think it’s already beginning to happen, Richard. If you look at, say The Miami Herald, if you look at The Los Angeles Times, if you look at those, especially those two newspapers, Dallas Morning News to some extent, they’re beginning to reach out to audiences that they had cut off themselves, before, back in the 1970s when a lot of newspapers in the country decided to increase their profits by reducing the cost of distributing newspapers out to audiences that were not that attractive to advertisers. Began to pull back, didn’t serve rural communities, didn’t serve Black communities, didn’t serve Latino enclaves because they weren’t that good for the advertiser. They’re reaching out to them again, now. They’re creating, they’re creating Latino, Spanish language editions to their newspapers. They’re creating, they’re creating youth newspapers. They’re creating news reports to try, to try to reach a larger audience and a lot of those people they’re trying to reach now, are the very people that our education system has already dropped out. So they’re, they’re already beginning to see an economic reason why they need to move into those areas with journalism.

HEFFNER: Move into those areas …

KOVACH: MmmmHmmm.

HEFFNER: … but the question then is, “with what?”. What is the content?

KOVACH: So far the content has been … what I’ve seen has been, has been pretty good. It’s basically their reporting on government designed for that community, in their language and on the issues that concern them and their communities. It’s not a watered down publication. The Miami Herald maybe caters a little too much, for my taste, to the political sentiments of that community and their news coverage. But I don’t see that at The LA Times.

HEFFNER: Now, where does Warp Speed fit into all of this? Let’s set aside for a moment whether you can or cannot…

KOVACH: MmmHmmm.

HEFFNER: … do this act in the boardrooms, corporate boardrooms of America …

KOVACH: MmmHmmm.

HEFFNER: … but what about the inevitability of the impact of speed and everyone becoming a reporter and there being so few editors …


HEFFNER: … as you suggest.

KOVACH: Troubling. It’s… it, it means there’s a lot of raw information, a lot of misleading information … you see it in the coverage of the current political campaign. I mean the idea that Al Gore is a, is an impossible liar is, is part of that process. I mean Al Gore is, is no more deceptive than any other politician I’ve ever seen, but suddenly the…the argument culture, the talk show hosts that need to generate an audience with some narrative that entices their emotional response, have played fast and loose with the truth in describing him.

HEFFNER: Yeah, but you know, I don’t get my information from Drudge.


HEFFNER: I do get my information from what I assume is our favorite newspaper, The New York Times.

KOVACH: Mmmmm.

HEFFNER: And yet I would get that picture to a farethewell.

KOVACH: It’s interesting …

HEFFNER: About Al Gore now.

KOVACH: It’s interesting … I mean even after they correct the record …


KOVACH: Even after the Love Canal story, and they corrected their own record 17 days later, they still talk about that as evidence that Al Gore can’t tell the truth. But it’s carried to a much broader audience by the Chris Matthews, and the Jay Lenos and the David Lettermans who provide no journalism at all, but simply grind out the, the most titillating story they can to…to try to hold on to an audience.

HEFFNER: And I don’t mean to be mean-spirited, but let me point out to you that Jay Leno is a very, very valuable property and I doubt that you’re going to get his corporate bosses …


HEFFNER: … to want him for a moment to do anything other than what he’s doing.

KOVACH: No, I…and I wouldn’t expect to, cause I don’t consider him a journalist and I’m not concerned about the journalists.

HEFFNER: But you do make the point that what he says becomes, in a certain way and a certain mix, what it is many Americans “know” …

KOVACH: Oh, that’s true. That’s true. And, and as you say, it’s reinforced by some of what the best newspapers in the country have reported. In The New York Times and The Washington Post. No, I don’t disagree that … I don’t disagree that things are in… confused state right now, I mean that’s what the book was all about. I just refuse to accept that as the status quo. I’m … I think that this needs to change and I’m going to do what I can to change it.

HEFFNER: You know, I ask my students every year to read Walter Lippman’s Public Opinion. Not that we indulge or get involved with the Lippman-Dewey debate, though I think that might be a darn good idea. I’ve never done that and I probably should do that.

KOVACH: It would be nice, yeah …

HEFFNER: But I wonder if you have any back-up plans …

KOVACH: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: … if the corporate room dog-and-pony act doesn’t work, where will you turn, intellectually?

KOVACH: Oh, I think if this does not work, and, and I don’t concede that for a minute, but if it doesn’t, if for some wild reason, it didn’t, I would work with some of my friends to create something on the Internet that performed what we think needs to be performed. I think there are enough people out there who know how to do it right. There are enough people out there who care, that we can, that we can create a web page, we can create a “geezers’ newspaper”. We can create a news report …

HEFFNER: If what you …

KOVACH: … unparalleled

HEFFNER: If what you mean by “geezers’ newspaper” is what I think you mean … that isn’t what we need. We need something that’s going to reach a growing population of younger people.

KOVACH: But geezers can reach a population. A geezer would produce it. But people who know. But, no, the, the younger generation … my experience so far … we did a major survey, we did the largest survey done so far as I know … of the attitudes of journalists … Andy Cohutt did it for the committee. And…and in the process, this was trying to, again, identify these principles, identify the characteristics that journalists believe defined them. In the process we talked about ethics and standards. The most encouraging thing to me was that the largest cohort out there, concerned about ethics … journalistic ethics and the kind of journalism that was being produced for the young kids who are on the Internet. And these are young kids who are working on Internet publications. Our survey covered print and electronic and made a special point to sample the Internet publications. And they were the ones most concerned about the, the ethics about the work they do.

HEFFNER: Younger kids who haven’t been brought or bought into the system.

KOVACH: Exactly.

HEFFNER: You know, our time is up now, Bill and I, I would like to continue to talk about the matter of standards. So if you will stay where you are and not walk off…angry at my needling …

KOVACH: [Laughter] No way.

HEFFNER: … you.

KOVACH: No, I enjoy it.

HEFFNER: Thanks so very much for joining me today.

KOVACH: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. Meanwhile, 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.