Bill Kovach

American Journalism: A Critique, Part II

VTR Date: June 1, 2000

Guest: Kovach, Bill


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

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And once again today my guest is Bill Kovach, long-time Curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University, Ombudsman for Brill’s Content magazine and one of American newspaper journalism’s most honored practitioners.

Well, let’s just continue now to parse what one might consider the principles, or at least the practices of American journalism and the hopes that you in particular have for them, Bill.

We were … at the end of our last program, we were talking about standards and I wondered what your response is when people talk about a national council, journalistic or news council, it may be akin to the one that we saw go down the drain so many years ago.

KOVACH: MmmHmm. I have difficulty with a council. Because it would have to be very careful how it was drawn, very careful who was on the council, and what sort of powers it had because I think one of the, one of the great attributes of our press is the independence of the journalist and that also is one of its great weaknesses. As is often the case. But, but I think Ben Bradley and Abe Rosenthal made the case against the National News Council when it came up the last time in the 1970s most effectively when they pointed out that had there been a National News Council in place, which was being promoted then, of the type that was described during Watergate … of the type that was being described, made up of editors of newspapers around the country, Watergate, as a story may have been killed in its cradle. Because in the first months of that story no newspapers around the country would carry the stories that Woodward and Bernstein were developing. They were opposed to that kind of reporting at the time. So the idea of a council that might exercise that sort of power over something new and interesting, like a Watergate revelation would worry me. On the other hand, I think the idea of a public representative, Ombudsman’s role, like the one I’ve been doing for Steve Brill, I think that should be much more widespread to … not only to get the public involved in their news organizations, but to let them help monitor the behavior of their news organizations. To let them help them to understand how the news organizations that serving them does its work.

HEFFNER: Well, how goes the institution of the Ombudsman?

KOVACH: [Laughter] I think it’s beginning to creep up a little bit. I think not because I’m doing it for Steve Brill, but because Steve Brill created the first commercial kind of consumers report on the behavior of the media and choose to have an Ombudsman on the job, has given much visibility to that position and that kind of work. National Public Radio now has launched an Ombudsman position, which I think is going to carry it even further. Jeffrey Devorkian from Canadian Broadcast, which is one of the great … as you know, is one of the great news radio systems in the world. Jeffrey Devorkian is the new NPR Ombudsman who’s not only going to represent the listeners interest, but is going to have a regular program on how NPR does its work. How the journalism that’s at work there … what the ethics are, what the standards are. I think that’s going to give … I think that’s going to give another new impetus to the idea among other news organizations to create that sort of a audience representative in their news organization.

HEFFNER: Well, you know, you … very much along these lines, you in your … let’s see it was April 2000 Ombudsman report in Brill’s Content, I was fascinated by the fact that at the very end of it you wrote, “In the end Thomas Griffith, a senior editor at Time, Incorporated wrote as good a description of journalism as any in an article entitled ‘The Pursuit of Journalism’ in the 1959 Nieman Reports” and you quote it. “Journalism is, in fact, history on the run. It is history written in time to be acted upon. Thereby not only recording events, but at times influencing them. Journalism is also the recording of history while the facts are not all in”. Well, my profession is that of the historian, erstwhile, perhaps, but nevertheless, historian. And I know that there are standards, there are principles that the historian’s profession can set before you. When I have asked journalists at this table about the degree to which they are historians and must, to some degree, respect the obligations of the historian, they’ve pooh-poohed that. They don’t want that responsibility. How do you come to feel that journalists will embrace and take on upon themselves those responsibilities.

KOVACH: I have no idea why a journalist would pooh-pooh that. Why a journalist would say “I don’t have the responsibility that a historian has to try to authenticate my materials, try to verify my material.

HEFFNER: Mostly I think because they’re so caught up with the notion that they are in a time warp …

KOVACH: MmmHmmm.

HEFFNER: And that they don’t have the time to verify, to think through … they say “don’t talk to us about the obligation …


HEFFNER: … that the historian has”.

KOVACH: Well, I just disagree with that. I mean the historian obviously has more time to develop the information, but that doesn’t mean … that doesn’t mean that you don’t make every effort you can to verify the information you’re presenting in tomorrow’s report or the report five minutes from now, and also make it clear what you’re not sure of. I don’t think anyone is going to hold you accountable for not knowing everything about an event that just occurred. But they do have a right to expect you to be honest with them, tell them what you know, and don’t try to bullshit about what you don’t know. And I think that obligation belongs to every journalist. I think it’s part and parcel of the job.

HEFFNER: Well, then we turn back to a National News Council …

KOVACH: MmmHmmm.

HEFFNER: … or some means by which that standard, or those standards can be … I hate to use the word “enforced” …

KOVACH: MmmHmmm.

HEFFNER: … but let’s use it. If you think that the model of the National News Council that went down the drain almost two decades ago is not a good enough model, what would you put in its place?


HEFFNER: Besides the Ombudsman?

KOVACH: You know, I think you can do it. I mean I think you could create a National News Council. My only question is whether or not a National News Council would, would develop any authority to do anything other than enlighten the public on a specific event. I think that’s already happening. I think the combination of the media … magazines, AJR (American Journalism Review), Columbia Journalism Review, Nieman Reports, Brill’s Content … I think there’s, I think there’s a lot of information out there now about the standards on particular stories. Howie Kurtz in The Washington Post is one of the most prolific writers on press behavior that I’ve ever seen. The New York Times now has several people writing on the subject. LA Times has a couple and that, and that level of reporting about the press is growing in daily news organizations. I think the way to do it is with more information. And if there’s a National News Council that can provide more information, I don’t see anything wrong with it. I just, I just have difficulty believing that a press as fiercely independent as ours would ever accept that role. Minnesota News Council has been in business for a lot of years and is well respected in Minnesota, but it hasn’t leaked across the border yet.

HEFFNER: Because of this independence?

KOVACH: That’s, that’s the only judgment I can make.

HEFFNER: Don’t fence us in. Don’t touch us.

KOVACH: Exactly.

HEFFNER: What about, in your own estimation, the validity of the continuing hiding behind, let’s say the First Amendment, although I think there’d be a lot of people, and probably you’re one of them, who would object to the concept of hiding behind …

KOVACH: Hiding behind …

HEFFNER: … because it’s there. We must honor it.

KOVACH: Right. Oh, I, you know, I think … I think journalists have had, have had about 20 years of, to my mind, bad behavior on that score. Refusing to face up to problems, refusing to face up to obligations and responsibilities simply by saying “the First Amendment gives me the right to do this. Or the First Amendment protects me in this”. I think, as bad as it is, maybe one of the most … I won’t say “encouraging”, but somewhat welcome trends in recent years has been the way lawyers have said, “all right, we won’t attack you on First Amendment grounds, we’ll attack you under commercial law on the basis of how you do you business. And we’ll see if the integrity of your work justifies that protection.” The Food Lion case for ABC, where they misrepresented themselves, they lied on documents to they could get a job to work undercover on a story that arguably you didn’t have to go undercover to cover any way. I mean it was there to be seen. If the damage was there, you could have gotten it without the undercover performance. So I think the trend in the law to challenge journalists to prove that they’re maintaining the responsibility that inherent in the First Amendment is probably a good discipline for all of us.

HEFFNER: Is there any concern on your part as a citizen, setting aside your professional role as a journalist … with what the media are doing in a variety of other areas. For instance, the question of violence …

KOVACH: MmmHmmm.

HEFFNER: … in the electronic media …

KOVACH: MmmHmmm.

HEFFNER: … has come up so many times. What’s your own sense of what to do, if you were willing to say, “we should do anything.”?

KOVACH: That becomes a little more difficult because I am, I would have to try to separate the news from the entertainment factor here.

HEFFNER: That’s not hard for you to do though, is it?


HEFFNER: You want to separate them …

KOVACH: Yeah, but I don’t, I don’t want to be … I don’t want to talk about the entertainment side of the business because I don’t know that much about it. I mean I’m … it disturbs me that there’s all the violence there. It disturbs me that, that there are programs there that I wouldn’t want my grandchildren to watch. But I can turn them off. Those problems are really difficult. I think journalists, when journalists are dealing with the issues I think have a responsibility to inform the public, but also to be careful that in informing the public they’re not simply playing the info-tainment game and putting graphic material on the air, ostensibly as news, when the real purpose is to try to develop an emotional reaction from the audience that might enhance your audience participation. I think they have to be careful about that.

HEFFNER: You think it’s possible to separate out, to tease out the, the news and public affairs aspect of what goes on the media and the entertainment aspect?

KOVACH: It’s very difficult. It’s very difficult. It becomes more difficult every day as the, as the two are merged in these so-called news magazine formats. And these specials that are produced by the news division, but are really … are really basically entertainment devices. I think it is much more difficult all the time to tease those things apart. Tease them out. I’m not sufficiently knowledgeable about how those systems work inside to really comment on them. I only know when it’s presented as news, I call tell the difference between news and entertainment. And that’s where I try to get involved.

HEFFNER: It’s interesting to me to note how frequently news, real news, newspaper editorials will take up the cudgels under the First Amendment for any effort to limit whatever … whatsoever what strictly entertainment media do. There seems to be that fear if they go first …

KOVACH: If they go first, we go next.

HEFFNER: … we go next.

KOVACH: That’s right. You know, there was that argument, I remember it well in the 1960s. There was a debate among a lot of news organizations whether or not newspapers should stand up with television, if they should associate with television. If they should not maintain a line, and say “no, we’re different. That’s a controlled media because it’s on a government … it’s controlled by a government agency and it is not the same as we are”. That battle was lost fairly quickly and I’m, to this day, not sure it wasn’t a battle that should have been fought much more.

HEFFNER: Well, that touches upon a subject, or enables me to touch upon a subject … I hope you won’t mind if I bring it up …


HEFFNER: What do you feel, how do you feel about cameras in the courtroom?

KOVACH: I have no, I mean, you know, as a citizen, I would support the idea of cameras in the courtroom, so long as they were, you know, cameras that … stationary, did not interfere with the trial any more than a reporter sitting there with a note book interfered with the trial. I don’t see anything wrong with that. I think if there is a problem with it, it’s a problem that the Bar Association could control because the problem would be playing to the audience, playing to the television camera, which does happen sometimes in those cases. And I would think that rules of behavior by the lawyers could be drawn up that would take care of that. And, you know, I watched some of those trials … not O.J. I couldn’t … there was too much of that, I couldn’t take that. But I have watched some of the trials on Court TV for a while, not all the way through, but I find them interesting sometimes, depending on the issue.

HEFFNER: Well, of course, you know your friend Steve Brill and I have battled over the issue of cameras in the courts many times here …


HEFFNER: … on this program and I thought I would just put the question to you and get your reaction. If you had to make a guess, in the proselytizing work that you’re going to be doing, where do you think you will, in the corporate world, get the greatest support?

KOVACH: I think we’ll get support from some of the newspaper chains.

HEFFNER: You mean in terms of dealing with the corporations that own them as well as other media entities?

KOVACH: Yeah. I would, I would think so. I would think we would get support from organizations that are having problems. And want to try to figure out how to regain some standing and reputation. The Hearst newspapers, with the problems they’re having in San Francisco. There’s a serious ethical issue there. And I would think they might be interested in working with us on talking about what the standards are.

HEFFNER: Well, let me ask you then, in the short time that we have remaining, when I go to the interview with Citizen Kovach in “Editor and Publisher” why at the end do we come down or not quite to the end to the notion that the toughest job you’re going to have in this proselytizing is going to be with Steve Case.

KOVACH: Because I don’t … I watched him the day they announced the purchase …

HEFFNER: AOL, Time Warner …

KOVACH: AOL is going to … they called it a merger, but AOL’s purchase of Time Warner. And Steve Case says to the American people, first words out of his mouth were “this is important to you because we have created a great communications device. We have created a great entertainment system. We have created a great home shopping system. He never once mentioned Time, CNN, Fortune, the great journalistic news organization … it was the furthest thing from his mind. He had no idea, no idea that this thing he was buying included a great news organization. It was outside his ken.

HEFFNER: Bill, I find it still so difficult to deal with that, that notion. This, you’ll grant is one of the shrewdest businessmen in America …


HEFFNER: … which means he knows the way things go. He knew what he was doing.

KOVACH: I don’t think so. I don’t think so. He … I have no argument with how shrewd he is as a businessman. I have no quibble that he is very bright man. I do doubt that he has any idea what Time and CNN represent inside that corporation.

HEFFNER: What do they represent?

KOVACH: They represent the possibility of Steve Case and AOL showing the world how quality journalism can, can not only pay but can influence the whole world.

HEFFNER: And if they don’t do?

KOVACH: If they don’t do that, I think he’ll live to regret it.

HEFFNER: In terms of dollars and cents?

KOVACH: I think in terms of dollars and cents, he will destroy, he will destroy and organization that is worth a lot in the new world of communications. Somebody will step in and fill that space and time. And a global market. There are just too many people who need the kind of information that can be presented there. I think people like, I think people like Norm Pearlstein, inside that organization have their work cut out for them. Norm is smart; Norm is good. He’s got his work cut out for him.

HEFFNER: I’d love to be a fly on the wall …

KOVACH: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: … when you present this … all of this information that is designed, in your estimation, to convince Steve Jobs ….

KOVACH: Well, we’ll see. I don’t know if I’ll get there or not. But, but we’re going to try.

HEFFNER: What … he’s not the only one.

KOVACH: Oh, no.

HEFFNER: There are other aspects of corporate American that you’re obviously going to go after.



KOVACH: Go to. Well …

HEFFNER: Okay … that’s fair enough

KOVACH: …both sides.

HEFFNER: … go to, not after …

KOVACH: … not after. As I say, you know, the chain newspapers. I would like to talk to the business side of their organization to help them understand …

HEFFNER: To stay away from the editorial side?

KOVACH: No. No, no, no, no. See, I think part of the problem was that … just like hiding behind the First Amendment, we in the newsroom hid behind the Chinese Wall and says, “we don’t have to know … we don’t want to know what those people are doing over there”. Well, those people were doing important things, they were keeping your news organization alive, but they were making decisions that affected you that you paid no attention to and knew nothing about. So, when, the wall begins to come down, you don’t even know the language to speech, to push back, to say “wait a minutes, that’s a stupid business decision because the impact it makes on me here”. You didn’t even know how to challenge that. So, what we would like to do is to talk to the business side about the journalism in their organization, what it means, why it’s important. And why it’s important to them and the job they do. And also talk to the news side because increasingly there are young people coming into the business who don’t know any of this. A lot of the journalism schools don’t train … there’s not a basic history book on journalism that I know of. They go through journalism school and don’t know what I’ve told you about 17th century periodicals in England. They don’t know that. They don’t know the history of early CBS when Paley was building a great news organization, the kind of decisions he made. They don’t know any of that. They need to know that. They need to know where these principles come from. And we’d like to do that. So that both sides are on the same level in understanding who they are and what they are, and what they mean to the company.

HEFFNER: What about the greatest teacher of them all … the editor?


HEFFNER: Is that a problem for American journalism? The absence of the kinds of editors who used to do what you want them to do?

KOVACH: See, I think part of it is, is what I’ve just mentioned behind that wall … behind that wall editors grew up without any knowledge of the business side of the organization so that when the wall stated to crumble, the news organizations began looking for editors, or sending editors to business school, who would learn more about the business needs of the news organization. So that rather than acquiring the information as they grew as editors, you had editors who, in some aspects were brain washed into the business decisions and began to worry more about quantifying, put a value on the production of the news rather than worrying about getting the news right.

HEFFNER: You don’t think that that’s inevitable.

KOVACH: I don’t think that’s inevitable. I don’t think it is. And I think it needs to be corrected. I do think that there are … not all, but too many editors who worry too much about packaging the information than they do about mentoring their staff, leading their staff, and worrying about the quality of the news.

HEFFNER: What do you mean by packaging?

KOVACH: I mean by making sure that the story fits a four inch hole, because that’s the way the page is laid out. Regardless of what the story needs … it may need 15 inches.

HEFFNER: Of course, what we haven’t spoken about at all, and we have less than a minute left is that matter of television news, of the journalist television. Do we just shrug our shoulders and say, “doesn’t make any difference”?

KOVACH: Oh, I don’t want to because there are some, there are some great journalists in television, still. Most of them are producers. There are some great producers, great journalistic producers. There are a few correspondents out there who still know how to tell a story, how to report a story. The potential is still there, always will be … just have to recover it from the Hollywood set and get it back on track. And I think that, I think the potential is still there, Richard. I really do.

HEFFNER: Bill Kovach, when you’re through with your proselytizing, or even in the midst of it, come back and we’ll talk about how successful it is.

KOVACH: [Laughter] I’ll be happy to do that.

HEFFNER: And thank you for joining me again on The Open Mind.

KOVACH: My pleasure.

HEFFNER: 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.