Michael J. O'Neill

Media: Power and Responsibility

VTR Date: July 9, 1982

Guest: O'Neill, Michael J.


THE OPEN MINDHost: Richard D. HeffnerGuest: Michael J. O’NeillTitle: “Media: Power and Responsibility”VTR: 7/9/82 I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. My guest today is one of the truly great and forceful leaders of American journalism, which was nowhere more evident than in his recent farewell address as President of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. Michael J. O’Neill had long been editor of The New York Daily News. Mike, thanks for joining me today here on THE OPEN MIND. O’NEILL: Great pleasure to be with you, Dick. HEFFNER: Well, is usually quote from a guest’s latest writing, a book or something, and I’m usually able to pick out a paragraph or so. And I was going through the pages of your recent speech, the farewell address, and I find it very hard to pick out one particular paragraph. I’d like to be able just to refer to a few to give our audience some connection between what you had the temerity to say the other week and what we’re going to talk about here. You wrote, “While there had been an astonishing growth in the power of the media over the last decade or so, I am by no means sure we are using it wisely. The tendency has been to revel in the power and wield it freely rather than accept any corresponding increase in responsibility”. You wrote, “Not only have we failed the press”, — and I assume you were talking about print and electronic, both… O’NEILL: I would probably put electronic first and print second. HEFFNER: Yeah, but that’s because you were Editor of The New York Daily News. “Not only have we failed to match new responsibility to new power, we have also yielded to trends that are hurting the cause of a well-informed citizenry. The communications revolution”, you wrote, “which is profoundly reshaping all of Western society, has also altered the basic terms of reference between the press and American democracy. No longer are we just the messengers, observers on the sidelines, witches’ mirrors faithfully telling society how it looks. Now we are deeply embedded in the democratic process itself, as principal actors rather than bit players or mere audience”. Let me just read a few more of these charges (because they are charges). “A more serious concern is how the media merry-go-round is distorting the news, the information base, if you will, that people need to make sound decisions in a democracy. The capacity to mobilize public opinion is now so great that issues and events are often shaped as much to serve the media’s demand as to promote the general welfare”. And if you don’t blush, let me just read two short ones more. “Questions need to be asked about our intensely adversarial coverage of government, because this too, is falsely coloring the information flowing to the public. With Vietnam and Watergate, with new waves of young, committed reporters moving into the profession, with older editors feeling guilty about having been too soft in the past, the media’s relations with government have taken a sharp turn for the worse”. And I’ve got to read just a bit more. “If the credibility of news coverage has been hurt, the functioning of government has been damaged even more. Not only are public issues and priorities strongly influenced by the media, every policy initiative, every action, has to run a gauntlet of criticism that is often generated and always amplified by the press. In the searing glare of daily coverage, an official’s every personal flaw, every act, every mistake, every slip of the tongue, every display of temper is recorded, magnified, and ground into the public consciousness”. Now, that’s quite an indictment. It’s quite an indictment coming from the editor of the nation’s leading newspaper. O’NEILL: Well, I didn’t mean it. The way you kind of select those paragraphs there does sound just a trifle similar to an indictment. But I didn’t really mean it so much as an indictment, but as an attempt to raise our consciousness to the fact that we’re wielding and are playing a very powerful role in society, and that we have to be mindful of that and to think about that ever time as we are using that power so that we do not inadvertently or otherwise hurt or distort or to bend or twist the way events, issues, etcetera are raised and then resolved by the American people. You see, we have had a communications revolution that is greater than the, I believe, greater than the discovery of movable type, the discovery of print after the Gutenberg Bible, etcetera, because it is massively flooding masses of people, millions and millions and millions of people, not just with information, not just with facts, not just with news, per se, but with living, actual experiences as television now can deliver those into the home. And so, when the War in Vietnam was delivered into the living rooms of America, the policy direction in Washington was changed, as it would never have been changed, I don’t believe, if it had not been for the vividness of those war scenes, the vividness of that kind of direct experiential kind of coverage. HEFFNER: Yeah, but Mike, you’re not going to push this all off on television, are you? O’NEILL: Not at all. I certainly wouldn’t want to exonerate the print media. But the new element here, the dramatic new element is television. I mean, it has changed the nature of communication in a way that is as phenomenal as the mass production of newspapers were more than a century ago, that grew out of the linotype, for example, which permitted mass production of large, mass newspapers. That, in its day, was a dramatic development. We’re getting a quantifiable, quantified and also qualified change going on here. And delivering actual living experiences with people physical suffering pain and so on, that is a different kind of communication. If you see these scenes, your emotions are aroused instantly, and then that leads to action, protest, demonstrations, etcetera. In a much different way than if you read the print and you reason and come to a conclusion. It’s less intense. And it’s a different quality. Now, when congressmen, for example, or rather the government in Washington can communicate instantly, directly, and massively with millions of people at one single time, without having reporters intervene, but by direct communication on a television tube, the whole nature of the political process has been altered. The presidential primaries have created conditions which are giving us a different kind of national politics. It is a congressman who gets elected directly by his media connection with masses of people. Does not have to pay any homage or pay off any political debts to the political party. That is one of the reasons that the political parties now are in a state of collapse. At the same time, the national conventions are no more, have been reduced almost to the level of being a show, with no substantive purpose. Why? Because the media-oriented presidential primary has utterly changed that process. Now, let me go another way. If you suddenly have riots in the streets after Martin Luther King’s assassination, for example, that then is communicated back from the masses to the decision makers in Washington instantly. The public has made up its mind before they have even perhaps seen all of the information necessary to make a good judgment. That is a different state of affairs in this country right now. HEFFNER: Yeah, but Mike, I know that. And there have been others who have commented on those qualitative changes. But it was Michael J. O’Neill who got up and, in his swan song as President of this American Society of Newspaper Editors, pointed his finger at them and said, “Listen fellows, we’re doing something and it doesn’t involve taking responsibility for the power we have. And we’ve got to take that responsibility”. Entirely aside from the McLuhan-ish analysis of the impact of electronics. O’NEILL: Right. HEFFNER: …upon what we are as a people. You’re talking about responsibility. And you say the press hasn’t lived up to that responsibility. Now, you comment somewhere about the beady red eye of the television camera, but when your excerpts from that speech were printed in The Wall Street Journal, and when others heard or heard of that speech, I know and you know that you got an awful lot of response from those who were saying, “Right on… O’NEILL: Yes, right. HEFFNER: …we haven’t been responsible”. Now, you’re not going to back away from that, are you Mike? O’NEILL: No. I certainly am not. I’m not saying that we were irresponsible. I’m not saying that we were being reckless. What I was saying was that because there has been a quantum increase in the power being exercised by the media in general, and because of the new way the news develops and is handled as it has been influenced largely by television (that’s the most powerful new influence), we have a responsibility to do more than we have in the past. I think you have the most responsible print press now in this country that we’ve ever had. We now have the most intelligent and thoughtful reporters. My message here was not to say that we haven’t improved, and not to say that we’re terrible, but to say that in the light of this enormous influence that we now bring to bear on national issues and policies, that we need to work harder than ever before to be careful in what we do, accurate in what we report, not to beat up on government officials and to regard them as some sort of adversary that has to be knocked down all the time. To look for the good things in life, the good things in society, the good things and the accomplishments in government, so that we do not simply present only the negative, and by presenting only the negative to present an imbalanced view of the world and therefore an imbalanced basis of fact upon which the American public can then make sound judgments. HEFFNER: How sanguine are you about that notion that we will take those steps? O’NEILL: In one of the passages you did not quote from, I expressed considerable puzzlement as to how we can deal with the enormous changes that have already been brought about as a result of television and the way it’s changing the nature of news and news handling and reporting, but also in the magnitude. And I don’t have any…I say in the speech that I don’t really have any good solid answers to that. I did suggest that the one thing that newspapers can do so very well and perhaps (if you’ll forgive me), perhaps better than television is that we can take issues, take them apart, analyze them, try to present them back in a reasoned, argued way, at some length, in some detail, in a non-impressionistic way, and try to pull a lot of issues back into more perspective, give them more depth and balance – and balance – to offset, if you will some of the distortions that are brought about by the new nature of mass communications. I don’t think that’s…I think we should be fair. We need to be more accurate. We need to do a lot of things to offset, if you will, some of the distorting influences of this new form of mass communications. HEFFNER: Would you advocate a – You say we ought to be fair – would you advocate a fairness doctrine for the printed press? O’NEILL: No. I don’t advocate…I am not a supporter of the National News Council. I don’t favor doctrines, I don’t’ favor regulations or laws or rules because ultimately the test is: What is it that we really believe, what do we feel strongly about treating our fellow man (and by that I mean government officials as well as the ordinary citizen), fellow man in a fair and decent and careful way. If we develop that conviction, if we have that conviction, as many, many editors now already do, if we have these convictions and practice them and make sure that our reporters follow that kind of an example, we won’t need rules. And when we do make a mistake, we’ll write about it just as, with as much tension and as much publicity as we write about the other people’s mistakes. HEFFNER: Mike, can you anticipate, can you envision that kind of attitude realistically in the face of what you were just describing before, competition from that beady red eye, to quote Mike O’Neill? O’NEILL: It’s a pretty tough thing. But I’ll tell you one of the most encouraging things that has happened as a result of this speech. I gave that speech to m y colleagues, my fellow editors at The American Society of Newspaper Editors. And not being a very good politician, I wasn’t sure ahead of time as to how they would react. You say it’s an indictment. And I thought that some of my colleagues might possibly read it the same way. And I, therefore, thought it would be better to give it as a farewell address rather than an inaugural address, so that if I get thrown out, why I would be close to the door already. Well, what was really amazing was that sure, some of my colleagues said, “Oh oh. By saying this, you’re giving ammunition to the critics who are already attacking the Freedom of Information Act and other things. There are some legitimate arguments for not going public with this kind of self-analysis and self-appraisal”. Some other people said I overstated it. And in maybe some cases I did to try to drive the point home. But what was really amazing is the number of fellow editors that responded favorably, who wrote columns about this and reprinted it. And I think that was, to me, personally, that showed a terrific sense of reasonability out there among a lot of editors who really do feel that we have to work harder than ever before to be fair and honest and accurate. And I just thought that was terrific. HEFFNER: But you know, I’m thinking about the many times that I have to say to people that I wonder about this grim race for me between my Jeffersonian principles and the Grim Reaper. Which is going to arrive first? O’NEILL: Good question. Yeah, your point is well taken. Jefferson, of course, assumed we were to have representatives; we’d have congressmen, etcetera, mediating between the mass public. And if the mass public gets informed as fully or more fully and gets informed earlier than the elected representatives, their ability to perform, their decision-making functions, the way that Jefferson and our other Founding Fathers intended, is being limited and circumscribed. And part of the deadlock we have in Washington right now on many issues, and part of the reason for this fragmentation of power that we see, is exactly what we’re talking about there. It’s this breakdown of party management of issues, development of bipartisan support for issues, the development of the single issue politics that tends to tear issues apart and prevent coalition. This whole, all these phenomena have many causes. But one of the important causes not well articulated, not well studied, I don’t think, yet, is the impact of modern mass communications. HEFFNER: You’re not going to argue, are you, Mike, that the impact can be reversed? O’NEILL: No. No, I’m not. It can only be modulated, I think, of moderated if possible. HEFFNER: Because, you know, this isn’t an exercise in which I’m trying to find things in this speech to… O’NEILL: No, no. HEFFNER: …that I want to say, “See, you said”. But you’re one of the most thoughtful and most experienced newspapermen I’ve ever known. And I guess I was terribly much concerned with finding many of my fears and anxieties given such expression by one Mike O’Neill. And then toward the end it was valedictory. You say, talking about television, “The beady red eye”. It’s baleful… O’NEILL: I told you before, I’ll take “The beady red eye” out in the next revision of this, right? (Laughter) HEFFNER: You say, “Its baleful effect on both government and journalism is beyond repeal”. O’NEILL: Right. HEFFNER: If it’s beyond repeal… O’NEILL: Right. HEFFNER: …then why kid ourselves in talking about ameliorative measures? You go on and say, “There are no solutions that I can think of, only the possibility of limited damage control”. Now, that doesn’t sound like a National News Council or something, the fairness doctrine. You’re talking about control. O’NEILL: Well, don’t misunderstand me. I’m totally in favor of the ideals of the National News Council. I am totally in favor of a doctrine of fairness. I am simply rather skeptical (always have been) about the ability to achieve these ideals through regulation, enforcement, etcetera. The problem with a National News Council is, number one, it is very, very difficult for a small organization like that to do the kind of investigative work and the oversight work, etcetera, that is necessary to do a thorough examination of problems in journalism. That’s one of my major problems with it. Secondly, we have seen, and we are now seeing in something called the Swedberg case, where our, that is the willingness of many, many editors in many states to join in voluntary free-press fair trial guidelines. We have just seen this now used and usurped by the judiciary to enforce and to prevent reporters, for example, from entering a courtroom on the charge that that is in violation of what was supposed to have been voluntary guidelines. You see how the voluntary guidelines, developed with goodwill on both sides by the bar and the press, evolve into court orders, federal regulations, etcetera. Now, in England we have a quasi-governmental, quasi-official body exercising these functions. And the worry here is the National News Council, which is totally voluntary now, could evolve into the same thing we are now seeing in the case of free-press fair trial guidelines. HEFFNER: That’s a horrendous thought. Almost as horrendous as what you described in this speech the other day. O’NEILL: Yes, I’m afraid so. (Laughter) HEFFNER: That’s the trouble. Tell me, after a good many years as editor of The Daily News, after a good many years as a reporter, after this tenure as President of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, what do you think, just between the two of us, what do you think really is going to happen in this whole area of a responsible and a free press? O’NEILL: Well, I think that we’ve had a long tradition, certainly in the post-war period, of editors, and I will also say broadcasters – You and I were talking before the program about someone like Edward R. Murrow, great, John Chancellor, all of these fellows are really as dedicated as I am to improving the quality of journalism – and so I think that you have a lot of – Walter Cronkite another tremendous force in this regard – you know, a lot of people concerned, worried, just as the reaction of this speech demonstrated, having goodwill, wanting to improve, and I think, just as w do with democracy, we just have to keep working at it all the time. Because the alternative, a regimented press, for example, is something none of us wants. And so we have to keep working to improve. We will never achieve perfection. We’ll never achieve the ideals I’m talking about. We will never eliminate all the problems that I try to discuss here today. But by discussing them and working and struggling and trying, I think we could improve and do a better job for the American public, you broadcasters as well as those of us in the print media. HEFFNER: Do you think there’s something more than exhortation? And I don’t mean to downgrade the message that you’ve brought to our fellow editors. O’NEILL: Sure. Sure. Absolutely. And I think The American Society of Newspaper Editors, for example, has had a very active ethics committee. We were running workshops all last year under the leadership of Claude Sun of Raleigh, North Carolina. We are going to be doing the same…We put out a special book; it was called “Playing it Straight”, on how to improve our ethics in journalism. By that I mean fairness. We have Bob Phelps of the Boston Globe, who has got some new projects that will be undertaken later this year in 1983. So we’re putting a lot of – that is collectively, the editors of the country – are putting a lot of action where some of these words are. And, no, we won‘t achieve the millennium in the next year or so, but the effort is there, and it’s not just exhortation. There are newsroom committees, there are newsroom seminars. Some editors are using this speech, for example, to have discussion groups with their own staffs. Okay, that’s all, I think to the good. HEFFNER: Do you think though, in terms, coming back to the very first point that you made, the competition, given the nature of this newer medium, the electronic media themselves, and most people say they get their information about the world around them not from the printed press but from those three network news programs – now maybe that will be changing with cable; maybe a lot of things will change – but at the moment do you think that it is realistic to assume that that thrust, that movement can be reversed? O’NEILL: No. No. And I say in the piece that I don’t expect it to be reversed. And it may well be that the progression here will be toward more dependence on electronic media. We now see an explosive increase in news programming and documentaries. We see cable and Independent News Network and other programs enormously increasing the total amount of information that’s being made available electronically every day to the American people. And I think that that does bear with it some of the liabilities that I talk about. And I don’t think that trend is going to be reversed. I think newspapers are going to take on a more specialized role in the future, of trying to provide thoughtful analysis, background, balanced discussion, reasoned arguments, etcetera, as a supplement, if you will, and hopefully, in some cases, maybe even an antidote to some of the impressionistic information they get on the electronic media. HEFFNER: At least you didn’t say, “The beady red eye of television”. O’NEILL: (Laughter) HEFFNER: Thanks so much for joining me today on THE OPEN MIND, Mike O’Neill. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you will join us again here on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.