Norman Isaacs, A. H. Raskin

National News Council

VTR Date: June 19, 1981

Guests: Isaacs, Norman; Raskin, A. H.


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Norman Isaacs with A.H. Raskin
Title: “National News Council”
AIR: 6/18/81

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. I hope that I have an open mind on media subjects. But as a pre-McLuhan person very much involved with the printed word, as a teacher of communications and public policy, as a participant in this medium for many years now, and as someone rather very much involved in film, too, I don’t pretend to anything other than the most profound conviction that the media, print and electronic, play an ever more and more important role in our national life and in our personal lives as well. It may not be, as the kids used to say, that we are what we eat, but surely more and more we are a function of what we see and hear and read in the media. That’s why it’s so important now that each medium be straight as an arrow as well as free. If we’re all to survive, then the media must surely be honest and fair as well as unbridled, accurate as well as probing. That’s why the now eight-year-old National News Council is quite so intriguing in concept and in practice, and potentially so vital to our national interest. Certainly there are responsible people who seriously question its purposes. But we need to examine those purposes carefully. Principally, they are to receive complaints from groups or individuals about unfairness and/or inaccurate coverage as transmitted by suppliers of news, and to receive complaints from members of the media relating to restrictions on freedom of the press.

Well, two of the grand old men of the American press are here with me today on THE OPEN MIND. With some help, they run the National News Council. Norman Isaacs, editor extraordinary and former president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors; and A.H. Raskin, who got stuck at The New York Times in 1931, and didn’t leave until 46 distinguished years later. Gentlemen, thanks for joining me today to talk about your baby, the National News Council. I wanted to start to ask Norman Isaacs and Abe Raskin, since we all know that there are some responsible people it h press who haven’t embraced the idea of a national news council or the National News Council, I wonder if we could start with the downside first. You’re both open minded people. What are the responsible and reasonable objections, in your estimation, to the existence of a national news council?

ISAACS: Well, the only one I’ve ever been able to tackle as reasonable was the position of The New York Times originally that the existence of any kind of oversight agency and the acceptance of it by the American communications community might lead to the intervention subsequently by government on the lines of, “If you’re willing to accept oversight, why not from us?” I challenge the thesis on which that thinking comes from, but nevertheless I saw that. Now, the rest of it I don’t understand. And now, perhaps Abe does.

RASKIN: Well, let me say that having participated for many years on internal arguments within The New York Times on this subject and the Times, as Norm has quite rightly indicated, is one of the strongest opponents, much to my regret, of the News Council. I myself believe that an agency of accountability is enormously important from the standpoint of maintaining the freedom of the press. But the feeling on 43rd Street, and I understand it although I don’t share it, is that at any time someone is looking over the shoulder of an editor and saying, “You made a mistake here”, that that becomes an infringement on the freedom of the press. Now, I don’t share that feeling. Quite the reverse. I Feel that for the press, with the enormous power and influence that it has and that it ought to have, because I certainly share the view that you started this program off with, that it’s indispensable that we have a vigorous, vital, vibrant and free press, that that freedom is going to be very hard to maintain, particularly in an era of more and more monopoly journalism, unless the public has the sense that this agency, along with the President of the United States, the Congress, the universities, the labor unions, the corporations, has to be accountable in some way, and it should not be in my judgment, and I’m sure you share this, accountable to government. So that a voluntary group like ours is one answer. Not necessarily the only one.

ISAACS: Might I say in part answer to Dick’s question about the downside, you know as well as I do that when we started out the journalistic community generally took pretty much the same cautious view. And has since changed very substantially because we now have 45 major news organizations contributing towards our support, and includes in raw numbers well over 200 separate units of the American press, perhaps 250. But interestingly, the New Council in 1981, going into ’82, is a different creature than what they were appraising back in ’73.

HEFFNER: How so and why so?

ISAACS: Well, the original construction of the News Council as was laid down by the founders, it was coming out of the Twentieth Century Funds Task force, was an organization that would monitor the national news suppliers. And there was great concern about that. And one of the concerns expressed at the time was: “What you are proposing to do is to oversee the best of American journalism. What about the worst of American journalism?” And it was pretty tight. It was being in a straitjacket with that original formulation. That the council has broken out of long ago. Now it is literally nationwide. And the only, what it tries to do is to accept complaints where there is national significance or national coverage.

HEFFNER: But isn’t that saying the same thing?

ISAACS: No. And/or from any individual anywhere in the United States. It has nothing to do with the suppliers nationally. It has to do also with local suppliers. Because if there is a lesson to be drawn for journalism out of a local incident, we take it.

RASKIN: But Dick, you are quite right though in suggesting that the whole function, reason for being of this council is to sustain the freedom of the press by accenting its responsibility. And the way in which we attempt to fulfill that function is by being a place to go for any individual, or group that feels aggrieved, that feels that the press has been unfair or inaccurate. And we then, ten members, the council now, this, Norm is the chairman of the council, and so he is at once the head of the staff and also an executive to council on part of the staff of the council. The council consists of 18 people, ten of them from the public, eight from the media. People of distinction and very diverse in their viewpoints. Who then receive a report based on our staff investigation of the complaint that comes to us, and then render a judgment as to whether in truth the complaint is warranted. Three-quarters of the cases we find that it isn’t warranted. But in those remaining one-quarter we sometimes come down very hard, indeed, on the offending organization in a non-coercive way.

ISAACS: May I say, Abe, to answer Dick, still a lot of news organizations, a lot of editors, a lot of reporters who hate our guts. And they’re going to continue.

HEFFNER: Now, why? Are they afraid that you have a power that may be used coercively? And do you?

ISAACS: Well, that isn’t our intent. It may be possible, I suppose.

HEFFNER: Okay, but what’s the fact?

ISAACS: Well, I don’t know.

RASKIN: Well, not coercive, we don’t, because we don’t have any punitive power nor do we seek any.

HEFFNER: What do you have?

RASKIN: All we have is the power of public information. We, everything we do is out in the open. The AP and UPI regularly cover our meetings, which are open meetings, report our findings. The Columbia Journalism Review has a section in almost every issue devoted to the findings and reports of the News Council But beyond that and the then such power of correction as is involved in editors themselves studying our findings and saying, “Hey, our attitude towards persuasion…

ISAACS: I like to use the word “persuasion”. But I can see that it goes beyond…

HEFFNER: Persuasion?

ISAACS: Yes, I like to use that word.

HEFFNER: For what? What’s the…

ISAACS: To persuade journalists to reach for higher standards.

HEFFNER: Yes, but you persuade people, you convince them that this is the right thing to do, but what is it that shows in that rightness?

ISAACS: What shows in that is hopefully the reason that discussion should go on among the council members as to whether this was good practice or whether this had some serious fault.

RASKIN: The power of the open mind which we assume exists preeminently among journalists and others who are attempting to mold public opinion and to inform…

HEFFNER: I hope the camera is on you as you smile when you say that, Abe. But look, Abe, you’ve been on THE OPEN MIND many times certainly right from the beginning a quarter of a century ago. I ask both of you this question, and I’m not being a devil’s advocate. On the other hand, I know that there is opposition. And I told you before the program, as I read some of the council reports, thinking initially ever since I heard about the council, “This makes so much sense”. I felt a sense of unease, disease as I read this oversight matter. You use the word “oversee”. I had an uneasy feeling. I wondered, when you two were back in the harness, and you were at many newspapers, and Abe was limited to The New York Times, seriously, how would you have felt with this overlook, oversee?

RASKIN: Since both of us can now speak from our days of active newspaper experience, I think we’ve got a fairly consistent record, which is not to say that we are the ultimate custodians of all wisdom in the field. We’re very sympathetic, and the council has tried very hard not to get into a position where anything it does pretends to be or is intended to be a straitjacket into which all good journalists must conform. Ludicrous. Many, there just has to be a great deal of diversity and judgment. The essence of good journalism indeed, accuracy of course, an important and indispensable ingredient and underpinning for everything. But within that judgment in the exercise. But just now to give a little of our own history, back in 1967, I wrote and The Times in its magazine ran, even though the editors at The Times were not terribly sympathetic to the viewpoint being expressed, expressed the view that was contained in that really highly subjective estimate of journalism was that the big curse of journalism was that all of us, including me, then the assistant editor of the editorial page, were too damned self-righteous, too convinced that we knew all the answers, and that we ought to sit in judgment of everybody else. And that regrettably there was not within journalism anything, and I suggested as one answer to that in terms of accountability that there ought to be a department of internal criticism in the nature of an ombudsman. A fellow named Norman Isaacs, who at that time was the Executive Editor of the Louisville Courier Journal – this advice I might say was totally ignored on 43rd Street. “Ludicrous. That Raskin is shooting off again”. But down in Louisville a fellow named Isaacs picked up the magazine and says, “This is a good idea”. Went into see Barry Beam, and you take it from there, Norm, and tell what happened.

ISAACS: Well, Barry was out of the country at the time, but he approved thoroughly. We had appointed an ombudsman within the next three or four days, and a first class one. But curiously, we in Louisville had been trying to start a press council to oversee our papers for what…

HEFFNER: Still a private one, your own papers…

ISAACS: No, no, we didn’t want – the ombudsman was our own private – we didn’t want a private press council. We wanted an outside press council. We couldn’t get anybody who was interested to take on the papers.

HEFFNER: You mean you couldn’t be honest by yourself? You needed somebody from the outside?

ISAACS: Oh, we could be honest, but looking at yourself…


ISAACS: …you’re always going to find reasons to say that we did it right. That’s the whole point. Now, I believe…

HEFFNER: Is that the assumption of the council?

ISAACS: No, it’s not. But I say this: Generally speaking, around newspapers, the idea of corrections of the record are not accepted generally. There are a number of papers that carry corrections columns. I would say that the majority of American dailies do not yet correct misstatement of fact.

HEFFNER: That’s quite a shocking thing.

ISAACS: That’s right. The idea of public accountability, sure, you run a ring of the larger newspapers in the country, in some way or another the record will be straight.

HEFFNER: On page 62.

ISAACS: In many of them, yes. But there is some place in the paper you’ll find it. On a lot of papers you will not find a correction. Now this is where we come in. If the person cannot get even anything straightened out through the editor or letter to the editor or anything else, where are they to go to?

HEFFNER: Well, let me ask whether your objection in good Marxian terms is the withering away of the National News Council or building up more of a national ombudsman.

ISAACS: No, I wouldn’t want either. I would love to see no outside overview or anything else in place, if the American journalists would only accept one simple principle, of acting professionally in what it is they do, and that is including correcting the record when it goes astray.

HEFFNER: I have gathered, as I’ve heard about some papers, particularly The New York Times, there’s always this difference between the editorial staff and its functioning and then there’s the publisher and then there’s the business side, etcetera. In terms of what you’ve just said, Norman, I don’t want to point fingers, but where do you think most of the responsibility for that attitude is? Is it on the business side? Is it on the reportorial side? Is it the editorial side? Where?

ISAACS: Well, it’s right within the ranks of the news editors and the reporters. The reporters hate to see corrections in print. How well I know. And the editors who are playing to the popularity of the staffs also oppose it, even when no names are mentioned.

RASKIN: I think, Norm, that you, yourself recognize that that is something of an exaggeration, that the record is improving. Many newspapers now are getting an assigned spot for corrections, and more are receptive. It is still all too often the reaction is, you know, “Those crazies are in bothering us, bothering us. Everything we print they are chibbying us about”. But newspapers are recognizing much more of a responsibility to correct.

ISAACS: You’re just seeing the good ones, like the Wall Street Journal with its column. But most of them, I still say the majority of them, Abe, no, you won’t find columns or…

HEFFNER: What have we got here? Mr. Good and Mr. Badguy? The good guy and the bad guy, the tough guy and the nice guy?

RASKIN: (Laughter)

ISAACS: He wants to be charitable. I don’t want to be charitable towards those colleagues of mine who still haven’t come around into what the public is entitled to. If there’s a misstatement of fact or some unfairness, there ought to be a place to correct it properly. Some of the complaints we’ve had have to do just simply with that. There was one against my old newspaper which was, you know, from a point of view of a newspaper I helped build, embarrassing. They had four opportunities to correct a simple error, error of fact which had done a disservice to a doctor. He couldn’t get through that staff level.

HEFFNER: You know, I really come back to this question. Let’s say that somewhere in between the notion that it’s not any longer quite as bad as it used to be, and it is very bad still, lies the truth. I really come back to the question as to how it comes about. Is it because it is not a profession and there is not a sense of professional stake or responsibility? I mean, doctors, Lord knows we’ve talked enough about the drawbacks of the medical profession and the legal profession here on this program, but there still is an overwhelming sense that they do in part police themselves and they teach themselves courses in medical ethics and legal ethics, etcetera. What about your profession if it is that?

RASKIN: One of the things that’s changed, Dick, this medium, television, has tended to get much more of an element of personalization into journalism. That has gone hand and hand with the development of the Mailer, Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote school of reporting the truth beyond the truth and…

HEFFNER: Print reporting.

RASKIN: Print reporting and equally electronic, in both medias there is a large quantity of the individual, the reporter becoming a big part of the story, and that leads to a temptation then to exaggeration. So there is a rising mistrust, as all of us know, of the accuracy and integrity of everything that appears in the newspaper or any other form of news. All the media are to some extent mistrusted.

ISAACS: And there’s something in journalism that’s hard for me to swallow, and that is that those in journalism from reporters on up to the top editors have for so many years given unto themselves the power and the right to criticize everyone and everything in the global society…

HEFFNER: Else. Everyone else.

ISAACS: Everyone else. But the moment the focus is turned on the press itself, there is the immediate drawing of the line saying, “You can’t do this. We’re protected by the First Amendment”. Or words to that effect. That cloak is thrown over themselves with great speed. It’s almost as if it was a TV thriller, that the reporter becomes the great superman in an instant. But if the press would only open itself to this type of dialogue with its consumers, we might not need what we have now.

HEFFNER: Well, that does raise an interesting question. Osborne Elliott, the Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia was here on THE OPEN MIND recently and, last week, and was talking somewhat along the same lines, but he was saying something about the quality of news reporting today, that in the disillusionment in this country that stemmed from Vietnam, from Watergate, from other events in our political history, there developed certainly in journalism such a suspicion of everything that was said and told that we developed a – well, he didn’t use the term “muckraking” – but once again went back to a kind of muckraking journalism. And interestingly enough, I guess to the degree that there is unfairness in the news reporting media, that medium, journalism will itself become part of the institutional suspiciousness in this country. And then what happens to the press if it’s considered suspect?

ISAACS: All right. May I give you the press side of it? I see in some of our recent work that we’ve been doing in connection with the prizes and other…

HEFFNER: The Pulitzer prizes?

ISAACS: The Pulitzer prizes and similar development stemming out of that episode, the series of episodes. I see now a mood within editors, it’s all over the press, in which they re restudying the whole idea of the hidden sources, of attribution, of stronger editor controls over reporters gone loose. And I think journalism is going to be improved over the next short period as the result of what has happened, the introspection that has come of saying, “Well, we ought to look at the record here”. And the record isn’t very cheerful.

HEFFNER: It’s interesting that there seemed to be something I learned in television a long time ago, and I, you remember those years…That if management didn’t exercise its responsibilities and didn’t know enough to exercise its responsibilities, all kinds of crazy things happened. And then it went on and on, and pretty soon there developed individual little duchies, each reporter, each news person, each producer if it were television, becomes the law unto himself. Are you saying that’s changing and there will be more…

ISAACS: Yes, I think yes. Yes. Yes.

RASKIN: There is a recognition that the thing that gives every news story, now focusing on print journalism, the credibility of the institution, the newspaper, rides on every story in it. And the editors have to be accountable and responsible for that. And that means without destroying the indispensable element of trust that must exist between the reporter and his editor. But it has to be a two-way responsibility, and the editor has to be sure that everything that goes into that paper is accurate. And there’s been much too much of a tendency to lean on an easy, lazy man’s way of fudging over the hard facts by using unattributed sources when that isn’t necessary. When you go to the person and say, “Look, I want a source. I’ve got to have somebody to quote”, you find that often the person will understand that.

ISAACS: I think the whole thing is now in the process, the beginning stages of the process of firming up. I think next year’s journalism is going to be a lot stronger journalism that that which we’ve just been…

RASKIN: And more believable.

HEFFNER: I think Norm has gotten the signal that we’re coming closer and closer to the end of the program, and decided to be an optimist.

RASKIN: (Laughter)

ISAACS: No, I’m not an optimist. I think it’s going to take a long time. And I’m not going to live to see the day when the press has remodeled itself to the point where it can be depended on to be absolutely reliable. But I think there’s enough within good editors around the country who see the mistakes that have been happening and they’re trying to do something about it. It’s a slow process.

HEFFNER: Did any of this stem from back in the 30s, the feeling that there was a kind of class war in the newspaper, and you, again you had the business side on one hand, and you had the honest, those honest, struggling young journalists on the other, and therefore they got their head and now have to give back some of it?

RASKIN: Truthfully, Dick, even though it is indisputable that there is more and more of a big business element in communications conglomerates the business office influence on this is really marginal. Now this is not to say that there aren’t papers or broadcasters around the country where that is not the case. But I don’t think that’s the central problem. It is rather the business of the spectacular and the negative as being the beginning and end of what newspapers and news reports ought to be about.

HEFFNER: It’s strange in light of all the criticism of individual stories by individual reporters this time, there we’re in the middle of May 1981 and everyone is aware of all the things that have happened along those lines. It’s interesting. I was thinking back in the 30s through, in the movies, the old idea that it was the honest young reporter, and there was the fumbling, bumbling editor who, if he didn’t stand in the way he could be just sort of pushed aside and finally agreed to let the reporter do the right thing. Seemingly the reporters have not so consistently been doing the right thing in recent years.

ISAACS: Oh, that’s correct. I looked through the old days of having to fight with publishers. I, long ago, threatened to write a book of the SOBs I have worked with. But nowadays, the reporters seem to me to have gone just as far out of control as the old tyrannical publishers. And they’ve got to be brought into line.

RASKIN: And the editors, too.

HEFFNER: Well, but you mean by editors, don’t you?

ISAACS: By the editors. Oh, yes. I don’t mean by us.

RASKIN: The editors as well have to recognize a responsibility.

HEFFNER: So, in a sense, the National News Council is an intermediary between the public and those who have responsibility, editorial responsibility in the press. Is that correct?

RASKIN: Well, we’re as concerned about unfairness against the press as we are unfairness by the press. We have, we take both as very serious responsibilities for the council to direct all its activities.

ISAACS: And the press complains to us about certain things happening in other parts of the press.

HEFFNER: That’s interesting.

RASKIN: Or people who are victimizing the press. Suppression of freedom of the press.

ISAACS: Yes, they do. We have complaints from the press.

HEFFNER: We’ll have to do another program on the complaints from the press…

ISAACS: About the press.

HEFFNER: Well, about the press and about all the rest of us. But thanks so much for joining me today on this discussion, Norman Isaacs and Abe Raskin. Thanks.

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”.