The Cost of ‘The News’ … At Any Cost
VTR Date: October 5, 1985
Guest: Goldstein, Tom
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THE OPEN MIND
“THE NEWS…AT ANY COST”
HOST: RICHARD D. HEFFNER
GUEST: TOM GOLDSTEIN
VTR: OCTOBER 5, 1985
HEFFNER: I’m Richard Heffner, you host on THE OPEN MIND. Most often at this table when I ask journalists about the possible foibles and faults of their profession today, I get something of a “no one’s in here but us chickens” response. I’m told that in the first place we journalists really aren’t all that bad. And then again, also it would seem in the first place, even if journalistic ethics too often do leave too much to be desired, the power of the press, after all, has been vastly exaggerated, so why worry? Well, occasionally, however, a voice is heard in the land even from within the profession that sounds a more discordant and less sanguine note. And since I think the press, both print and electronic, does play an extraordinarily powerful role in our lives, I’d like to examine and to even amplify such a voice. Always, or course, with an open mind. Now Tom Goldstein’s intriguing new Simon & Schuster volume, THE NEWS AT ANY COST: HOW JOURNALISTS COMPROMISE THEIR ETHICS TO SHAPE THE NEWS, surely puts this contemporary dilemma right on the line right in its title. And though he’s now an academic teaching journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, Mr. Goldstein’s working press credentials are pretty darn good. Earned in part at the Associated Press, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, and THE NEW YORK TIMES. So to begin, I want to ask him if American journalism is really riding so high right now that it needs his kick in the pants. That is the first question.
GOLDSTEIN: You’re assuming it’s riding high. I’m not sure it’s riding high. One of the things I did in the book is I looked over press criticism over the last one hundred years. And it goes in cycles. The press in the 1890’s was riding high and there was a little push. In the 1920’s, little push. 1940’s, the Hutchins Commission, Robert Hutchins. Wonderful commission. Very intelligent recommendations. That’s …out of that emerged the recommendation for the National News Counsil which was formed, lasted for ten years and unfortunately died about a year ago. The press needs someone to look at it. And it’s not happening enough now. There’s not enough self-examination.
HEFFNER: Of course that raises the question always of who killed the National News Counsil?
GOLDSTEIN: Some of the major publications.
GOLDSTEIN: They were afraid that outside scrutiny would lead to some sort of regulation from an outside body. I think that was an erroneous fear.
HEFFNER: Aren’t you concerned with that as a journalist?
GOLDSTEIN: Oh, absolutely. I am concerned. I think the National News Council, which was based in New York, made some mistakes. It probably shouldn’t have been in New York. It probably should have been in the middle of the country somewhere. Just for appearance sake. It got caught up on some issues that it probably didn’t need to spend time on. A lot of procedure. Procedural issues. And no one paid attention. But essentially, my former employer, THE NEW YORK TIMES said they weren’t going to cooperate from the beginning. And that cost the National News Council.
HEFFNER: You mean once you don’t get THE NEW YORK TIMES with you, that’s it?
GOLDSTEIN: On an issue like that it was very harmful. And there have been many post mortems of the National News Council. And I think that was assessed as the critical factor.
HEFFNER: But you know, let’s set the news Council aside for a moment. And I know something about it, and I guess I’ve expressed my prejudice here a number of times that we should have one. But I was fascinated by the fact before your book appeared, in preparation for it, you had written an article that appeared in the GAINSVILLE SUN on February 1984 and you said what journalists could do to help themselves and their image is to explain themselves better. And then you said, for example, last year a survey sponsored by the American Society of Newspaper Editors found that two-thirds of the reading public is served by newspeople who agree with the statement public concern over newspaper ethics is caused less by the things newspapers do than by their failure to explain what they do. Do you accept that notion?
GOLDSTEIN: The two-thirds…I mean the number…I don’t know, but I…
HEFFNER: No. It’s what the papers…what they do by way of explaining…
GOLDSTEIN: Yes I do. Let me give you a more recent example. Out in California early this fall there was a gentleman named Theodore Streleski who had been convicted of murdering his professor at Stanford. And he was convicted of manslaughter, I believe. He spent seven years in prison and was released. He was released and it became a media circus. The national media, the local media. One of the local papers, the SAN JOSE MERCURY, which is one of the better papers on the coast, go t an exclusive with Streleski after he was released from prison. They got him. They sequestered him in the company car and drove him around and had an interview, and dropped him off in San Francisco. In this interview, all sorts of questions were asked. What are you going to do about dates? Things like that. And it was too much. It made a celebrity out of someone who should not have been a celebrity. Page one story, very long. The letters poured in to the SAN JOSE MERCURY. Why did you do this? This is wrong. And it may be wrong. But what the SAN JOSE MERCURY didn’t do and which they should have done is write a column saying maybe we were wrong, but maybe we were right. And this is why we were right. We printed this on page one because it’s an important guy. It was at Stanford. That’s our bay city. But they just didn’t do that, so I don’t understand why papers are so afraid of explaining why they make decisions.
HEFFNER: You know you make that sound, and that’s why I picked this up, you make that sound as though what we’re talking about here has to do simply with explaining oneself. And yet in the NEWS AT ANY COST: HOW JOURNALISTS COMPROMISE THEIR ETHICS TO SHAPE THE NEWS, you’re not talking about a whole slew of things that the press does that you take exception to.
GOLDSTEIN: I’m saying explaining themselves would help in some ways. It won’t solve certain practices. I’m saying, explaining, some newspapers have ombudsmen, very few now. About thirty of them write columns explaining. Certain papers have corrections and THE NEW YORK TIMES has an Editor’s Note which from time to time explains decisions. That’s helpful. I’m not saying that’s a cure.
HEFFNER: Do you think there is really any acceptable explanation for this? What looks to me like a chamber of horrors that you list here in terms of the things that journalists do, and do seemingly every day that I thought you took exception to.
GOLDSTEIN: I do take exception to.
HEFFNER: But what are they?
GOLDSTEIN: I mean they lie, they cheat, they steal, they misrepresent.
HEFFNER: That’s all?
GOLDSTEIN: No. They take advantage of the unwary and the unsophisticated. Why is it happening? I mean journalists aren’t different from any other group of people. I mean it’s a built-in-structure in the trade. People are young. Most journalists…most of the transgressions are committed by younger reporters. They don’t know better. They’re aggressive. They want to get ahead. They’re not told that you can get ahead by doing things in a proper way.
HEFFNER: Tom, I don’t understand that. You say younger people. They’re not told. I thought what you were talking about here was an honest person’s profession presumable and that journalism…are you saying they have to be brought up to be honest?
GOLDSTEIN: I’m saying that the role models…I mean, for example, let me quote Geraldo Rivera who’s a role model for many journalists. A couple of years ago he was at a convention of journalists called the IRE, Investigative Reporters and Editors. A very worthy group. And he was talking about ABC’s code of ethics which was the most intelligent code of ethics in the field. And he got up and said, who reads it? It’s thirty pages. It reads like an insurance policy. I’d get an F in journalism school. And the crowd applauded and laughed. And so that condones a certain atmosphere that I find disturbing and unwholesome.
HEFFNER: He’s not a kid, and you’re saying that these youngsters…
GOLDSTEIN: Emulate Geraldo Rivera.
HEFFNER: but I thought we were talking about a generation that at least from the 60’s and from the 70’s and from the 80’s, now more honest, more concerned with forthrightness and decency.
GOLDSTEIN: Well, I don’t necessarily see that. And what you have to understand about journalism, it’s basically a young person’s profession. By the time you hit forty, there aren’t that many reporters around, which I think is unfortunate. I think publishers and editors are to blame there. I mean because many of the best, many of the best people leave. The other day I was looking at THE NEW YORK TIMES oh, about six years ago. I was looking at the phone list. And I think half of the people who worked on the metropolitan staff of THE NEW YORK TIMES have left the TIMES. Most have left journalism. And that’s a shame. Amongst that group were some of them most talented, some of the people in their early thirties.
HEFFNER: Why do you think…what’s the reason?
GOLDSTEIN: They were frustrated. They were angry. They were upset. Each had a different reason. The pay isn’t commensurate with other fields. And what was the shame of it, the TIMES didn’t try to keep a lot of those people. And they should have. And I mean journalism becomes a younger and younger profession.
HEFFNER: Is it at journalism school that one learns to do the right thing?
GOLDSTEIN: I would hope so. But journalism school…there’s a figure…something like 80 percent of the new reporters have gone to a journalism school.
HEFFNER: And yet these are the young people who you say don’t have that moral standard.
GOLDSTEIN: But that’s a very deceptive figure. But most of those who get jobs, at least the better papers, have not gone to journalism school. And of the, of that 80 percent who have gone to journalism school, a lot major in public relations, advertising. It’s a mixed bag. I think it should be taught more in journalism school. I’m not sure that there should be undergraduate journalism schools anyhow.
HEFFNER: Do you think there should be graduate journalism schools?
GOLDSTEIN: Yes. Yes. I think a grounding in the liberal arts would be the essential. And if you can get that and major in journalism as an undergraduate, fine. The schools I’m familiar with…it’s very hard to do both.
HEFFNER: Tell me about that. I’m interested because you’re talking about the inadequacies, the moral inadequacies, the ethical inadequacies of many of the young people who go into journalism. Presumably then, we do have to depend to some extent upon journalism and journalism courses, journalism schools and courses. And yet you’re not very pleased with that.
GOLDSTEIN: Well, I mean first you have to have a base, fundamentals, good writing. I don’t want to turn this into a program of why students can’t write. But that’s a problem. And I think first you have to be able to know how to write. And there are fundamentals of reporting. And then the ethics of reporting. I don’t like to use that word. I like to use strategies and practices. I mean, what’s…how do you go about getting a story? Do you tell someone you’re a reporter? Do you withhold that fact? That’s just fundamental stuff.
HEFFNER: Why don’t you like to use the word ethics? You use it in your title.
GOLDSTEIN: I know. It turns students off. I’m afraid they think it’s some Aristotelian discussion. It’s not. It’s stuff they have to know every day. Day in and day out. How to get the story. How to get it fairly and honestly and in a straightforward way.
HEFFNER: I’m surprised you say that the concept of ethics or the word ethics turns them off. What is that saying about this generation?
GOLDSTEIN: Well, I think…I mean I think the courses and colleagues who teach the course…students like it once they’re there. But I think they’re…they don’t understand what it is until they get into the course.
HEFFNER: If you had your way, would you eliminate journalism courses for undergraduates? Or journalism majors, let’s put it that way.
GOLDSTEIN: I think I probably would. I think I probably would. The schools that are now accredited as journalism majors…you’re only taking it twenty-five per cent of the time, maximum, anyhow. And I would just as soon see people…like at Berkeley there are a few undergraduate journalism courses. You can’t major in it. Get a grounding in the liberal arts. And then go to journalism school or go to a paper which has a wonderful internship program.
HEFFNER: You know, I’m glad you said that. And I was really leading you to it because I can’t say it enough. And I probably say it ad nauseam to my students. But I agree with you. But look, there was a review in THE NEW YORK TIMES of your book, THE NEWS AT ANY COST. It was by a former senior editor of TIME, now Dean of the School of Journalism at the University of Missouri, James Atwater. And he says at the very end, ultimately talking about ethical principles, ultimately the best guide may be the feeling in the pit of his or her stomach in that of the reporter. What do you think about that?
GOLDSTEIN: I would tend to agree with my reviewer. I mean you can’t make absolute rules. You go through Woodward and Bernstein, ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, which I did in a recent class exercise. Point out all the inconsistencies. All the possible transgressions that Woodward and Bernstein did in conducting that investigation. There are many. Fifty, a hundred, depends upon whether you are a liberal or a conservative. And then I said to my students, would they not have done that? Do you only break the rules when it’s an important story? There’s some things they shouldn’t have done. There were a couple of transgressions that were borderline. It’s unfortunate. Ultimately, ethics are relative.
HEFFNER: Yes, but now you’ve gone to law school as well as become a journalist. Given the transgressions in the Watergate investigation, would you have said those transgressions rule out, let’s throw out what it is that they did? As you might in a courtroom?
GOLDSTEIN: In that instance, in a few other rare instances, the end may justify the means.
HEFFNER: You’re serious?
GOLDSTEIN: I’m serious.
HEFFNER: As a principle?
GOLDSTEIN: Not as a principle. I mean you sort of look the other way and say, well you got it. Okay. Don’t tell me how you got it. But the principle…what upsets me, is that principle is applied to just about everything by journalists. Take the example of misrepresentation. Posing as a person other than a journalist. Most of the news organizations that have written codes of ethics frown upon posing. Or if they permit it, it’s only as a last resort. More often than not, the intermediate steps seem to be forgotten. And the last resort is arrived at pretty fast. And that’s wrong. And some of the stories in which…I have this collection of three or four hundred stories in which a reporter has posed as someone other than a reporter. Posing as a high school student to find out that high school students are late for school and sometimes drink during recess. I don’t think you have to pose to do that. And when that story came out in Arizona, the people were furious. And they felt they had been betrayed by their paper. Journalists should be straightforward. Another example. A paper in Rochester, of all places, decided that it was upset because book reviewers were selling their review copies of books to a store in New York City. So rather than going around, and there’s a straightforward way of doing that story…calling up book reviewers. Do you sell this? They may lie. They may not lie. Some…but rather than do that, the Rochester papers sent a reporter in undercover. This discredits the profession.
HEFFNER: Who then is going to determine when it’s permitted and when it’s not? When you reach the threshold. You say with the Woodstein business the threshold was reached.
GOLDSTEIN: It’s very, very hard. I mean I think the rule…there should be a rule against it. And to carve out an exception…the editor, the publisher, long hard thought.
HEFFNER: But you’ve carved one out for your students. You went through all the things about…
GOLDSTEIN: I didn’t express my view to them. I let them stew over it for a while.
HEFFNER: Well, maybe they’ll watch the program and know. But quite seriously…
GOLDSTEIN: What would you, I mean, let me turn the tables…
HEFFNER: No. You can’t turn the table around because you’re not asking me the questions. I don’t know. I mean, and obviously…
GOLDSTEIN: That’s hard…I mean that’s the hardest one.
HEFFNER: …that’s the point. Does that mean then that you really can’t for this profession establish a meaningful, workable code of ethics?
GOLDSTEIN: Atwater said in the review, it’s what is in the pit of your stomach. And what’s in the pit of my stomach might differ from what’s in the pit of your stomach. It may differ on one day. It may differ in a editor’s stomach.
HEFFNER: Are you willing to leave it at that?
GOLDSTEIN: I’m willing to live with that. I just think people should be better trained, better prepared, more sensitized to the feelings of others. And when they’re going to make an exception they better be awfully sure they’re on solid ground.
HEFFNER: You know, you begin THE NEWS AT ANY COST, and you quote from Solzhenitsyn’s wonderful speech at Harvard in ’78 and you say:
Hastiness and superficiality, these are the psychic
Diseases of the Twentieth Century and more than
Anywhere else this is manifested in the press.
The first part of it has to go with it. This is the disease of the Twentieth and probably of the Twenty-first Centuries. Therefore, is it possible to single out this profession? I guess the question is, do we have to single out this profession and demand more of it?
GOLDSTEIN: I think we do. But at the same time, journalists are human beings. They reflect the values of those around them. There’s a lot of criticism of journalists, but the worst possible question a reporter can ask in a microphone or in the face of the grieving widow or the grieving mother, how do you feel? It’s terrible. And yet, there’s some…there’s an audience for that. There’s a voyeurism amongst the population. And that says something about journalism, but it also says something about the society in which we live.
HEFFNER: Presumably with its code of ethics the medical profession will not succumb to quite such an extent. Presumably. The legal profession, presumably, will not succumb to quite such an extent. Would you agree?
GOLDSTEIN: I would tend to agree. The problem with journalism and an enforceable code of ethics is A) You’ve got the first Amendment, and B) You’ve got accepted journalistic practices. And I have my sense as to what they should be. I believe in straightforwardness. I believe reporters should wear a hatband. I am a reporter. There’s no need not to. But there are people who disagree with that. And I would hope that by force of my argument and just good sense the notion of straightforwardness would win out. But I can’t impose that view on others.
HEFFNER: You know, you quote in the NEWS AT ANY COST, you quote our mutual friend Lou Boccardi who is now president of the Associated Press. And you say he asked a pertinent question. In fact, he asked that question here on THE OPEN MIND, too. Have we reached a point where we must recognize an obligation not to do some of the things the First Amendment gives us every right to do? And I go back to that because of what you said. Remember the First Amendment.
GOLDSTEIN: Yes. And I think reporters…I mean, I don’t want to dwell on Woodward and Bernstein. That is a story that probably should have been done. There are a lot of stories…
HEFFNER: Should or shouldn’t?
GOLDSTEIN: Should have been done. There are lots of stories that don’t need to be done. I can live without knowing what it’s like in a discount bookstore in New York City if that requires trampling over people’s privacies. I can live without knowing what’s going on in a high school in Arizona if doing that story means trampling on privacy. Reporters have to…its’ the hardest thing to know when not to do a story.
HEFFNER: Tom if you had been the editor of those papers at those times, what would you have done? Or the publisher in terms of…
GOLDSTEIN: In Arizona? You want to know what’s going on in schools? There are ways to go about it in a straightforward way. You interview teachers. You interview students. You interview parents. It may not be as flashy a story, but we’ll come up with the same information. IF we want to do a story on the practice of selling review copies at discount, you call up reviewers. Then you interview the owner of the store. There’s no secrets there. There’s no requirement to dissemble to get the inside story.
HEFFNER: Yes. But now you’re making it seem as though it were as simple as falling off a log or not falling off a log. And we’re talking here about a competitive institution. Isn’t that a large part of it?
GOLDSTEIN: Yes, it’s a competitive institution. Deadlines. There’s a quote…Bob Green, a veteran investigative reporter of NEWSDAY, a Long Island newspaper…a distinguished career, but one of the things he said, the same conference that Geraldo Rivera made his comment, was talking about a particular investigation: “I lied, I cheated, I damn near stole”. Or fine sense of ethics diminishes in proportion to the importance of the story. The juices flow, oh, I’m going to get page one. Well, earlier I talked about the structure of journalism and its reward system. Perhaps there should be a different reward system that discourages people from stating in fine terms what their ethics are until it comes to the crunch and then they’ll just violate them left and right.
HEFFNER: What do you mean a different reward system?
GOLDSTEIN: That you don’t…well let me go back to youth and the Janet Cook incident at the WASHINGTON POST. She’s fabricated a story. She’s a wonderful writer. She fabricated a story about an eight year old heroin addict. Several months later she was interviewed. “Why did you do this”? “Well, I mean there was such pressure there, and I spent all this time on the story and I just couldn’t go back to the office without the…(inaudible)…so I made it up.” That’s what I’m suggesting about it. A different atmosphere where the scope and the exclusive isn’t the only thing. You know, where a good solid career can be built over a lifetime, not by the time you’re forty.
HEFFNER: Of course again you say you are talking about the young. When you went to J school at Columbia, the journalism school at Columbia, any different then?
GOLDSTEIN: It was somewhat different then. Some of the…I mean I did things, and I posed when I was a student. I didn’t know better. I would never do that now. And no one told me not to.
HEFFNER: Even at J school?
GOLDSTEIN: Even at J school. But you know, I thought about it afterwards. It was sort of accepted practice.
HEFFNER: Well, now we know that law schools require legal ethics courses, medical schools are becoming more and more involved in trying to teach the humanity of the practice of medicine. Wouldn’t you expect this to be the case in journalism?
GOLDSTEIN: It is happening. They’re called different things, journalism responsibility, ethics. I mean, my view is that…I mean many journalism schools have law courses. And I think there should be a merging, perhaps of law and ethics. What is forbidden and what is right. A lot of times there is a murky divide and I think it would be an interesting experiment to me at least to do it in one course.
HEFFNER: You have the interesting capacity now to comment from all directions. You teach journalism. You’ve been a practitioner.
GOLDSTEIN: I saw journalists work when I was a press secretary.
HEFFNER: And so you’ve seen, you’ve seen all ends of it. You went to law school. You went to journalism school. You were made a…(inaudible)…press secretary. You worked for some of the major newspapers and the Associated Press. Now you’re teaching. What do you think about…I know what you’ve said about the young in general, that they need the right role models. What do you think about the people who are today, you see them, you feel them, you touch them. You see them sitting in front of you who are going into journalism. The students in journalism school?
GOLDSTEIN: I see a very small select elite group who’s pretty good. And Berkeley is an unusual place in that a lot of the people have done other things, have accomplished things in other fields. And have decided that they’re going to switch over to journalism. So there’s a prior commitment. I’m pretty pleased with what I see. In general I’m less pleased. Some of the large journalism schools that grew like topsy about ten years ago is a result of Woodward/Bernstein, the glorification of investigative reporters. They grew too fast. And now what’s happened to support the larger faculty which was built up when they grew too fast? They’re sliding over into public relations which is the fastest growing field. Which isn’t really journalism, I don’t think. And advertising. And they’re trying to attract people into the field to take care of the faculty. I think that’s the problem.
HEFFNER: What do you mean, to take care of the faculty?
GOLDSTEIN: Well, when they grew in the 70’s, the faculties grew. The tenured faculty grew. And now they have to have students to be taught by these faculty members.
HEFFNER: Is it a soft subject, generally?
GOLDSTEIN: It depends upon where you go. At the University of Florida, it’s considered to be one of the hard subjects. Which surprised me a little bit because people…English was considered to be an easy subject by some of my students. And they went into journalism to learn how to write. So, it varies. It shouldn’t be a soft subject.
HEFFNER: We have thirty seconds left. Are you more sanguine than HOW JOURNALISTS COMPROMISE THEIR ETHICS TO SHAPE THE NEWS would indicate?
GOLDSTEIN: I wanted to attract peoples’ attention with the title. I mean, it’s a headline. I’ve been criticized for it a lot, but I think I wanted to grab attention.
HEFFNER: You’re not copping out now?
GOLDSTEIN: I’m not copping out. I’m just saying that…you ask me yes or no, and I’m explaining how it came about. I am upset by what I see. And I continue to be upset and fresh examples come up, crop up every day.
HEFFNER: Tom Goldstein, thank you so much for joining me today on THE OPEN MIND.
GOLDSTEIN: My pleasure.
HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time here on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.