Rebecca W. Rimel

The Media: A Power To Motivate or Manipulate?

VTR Date: March 11, 1999

Guest: Rimel, Rebecca W.


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guests: Rebecca W. Rimel
Title: “The Media: A Power to Motivate Or Manipulate?”
VTR: 3/11/99

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND.

And over the years on this program I’ll admit to a particularly great interest in and a real fascination for the decisions made by people who spend philanthropic dollars…. Large amounts of them!

So that the leaders of a variety of major foundations have joined me here at this table. Franklin Thomas of Ford. Then during their respective presidencies, Dean Rusk, George Harrah, John Knowles and Peter Goldmark of Rockefeller. John Gardner and David Hamburg of Carnegie. George Soros of his own Foundation and so on.

But no one of them seemed as much or at least as actively interested in my own area of professional concern – mass media – as today’s guest: Rebecca W. Rimel, President and CEO of the Pew Charitable Trusts. Now one of American philanthropy’s richest and most innovative participants.

Some day, of course – if she’ll do it – I’d like to talk at length with Ms. Rimel (as I did on several Open Minds with Peter Goldmark) much more generally about the nature, the obligations, and the opportunities of our major foundations. But what immediately leads me to invite her here today is a column about modern media that Ms. Rimel has published recently in the Sunday New York Times titled, “A Power to Motivate or Manipulate?” And I want to begin our program by asking her just what hopes and fears inform that seminal question. Fair enough?

Rimel: Fair enough. Thank you have having me here. And I’m delighted about your interest in philanthropy, and particularly about our involvement in media, and our work with the press. Probably just a word of backdrop, if you will. We didn’t come to our interest in media sort of square on. Kind of think about it coming in through the back door. And it’s because we realized what I think most Americans know that the media is the most powerful, most important force in our society to educate, to engage, to involve or to increase our cynicism, to misinform and in fact, I think to encourage Americans to check out of public life. So, if you believe that, and I think it’s dead right, you have no choice but to think about how the media is going to re-thing their role in a healthy democracy.

Heffner: You say “re-thin” … that’s … that’s so much was interested me about the piece in the Sunday Times. Because you write that “journalists are struggling to get people’s attention and keep it. Standards once sacrosanct are now considered unworkable.” And you seem to be saying that if you can help the media work out what their proper relationship should be to information, to the public, to all the issues that you do relate yourself to, that somehow that will be the ticket. But aren’t you making a rather strange assumption that these people don’t know what they should be doing? That they don’t know what their standards should be?

Rimel: Well, let me be clear that the only people that can know that and can answer that question are the leaders in the field… journalists themselves. So, think of us, if you will, turning on the light, setting the table, maybe serving up the dinner, but they’re the ones that have to come to the table to discuss where the profession is now, what are the core principles, what are the moorings that journalists need to, if you will, come home to. It’s a very different environment… and I’m not telling you anything you don’t know. But information has been merged with entertainment. The mergers and acquisition in the industry… it’s a highly competitive, highly charged environment and some of the traditional principles, as I’m told by people in journalism, are being tested and pushed and if you will, diminished. So our job is not to at all dictate, even if we thought we could be so presumptuous to do that. It’s basically to provide the safe haven for the real leaders of the field to come together to discuss and debate and to re-thing and that’s where people like Gene Roberts, Tom Rosensteele, many of the other people that we’re funding through our work are doing just that. So our job is provide the forum, not to offer the way.

Heffner: Now, you know I think back to some of the programs I did with Peter… again Peter Goldmark, in particular. Peter made no bones about not being an intellectual eunuch. About having very profound convictions about which way this should go whether we’re talking about birth control matters, or which way that should go. Doesn’t the Pew Charitable Trusts…. Don’t they, the Trusts, have some basic notions of which way they would like, let’s say in this instance, the media to go?

Rimel: Well, we have very strong opinions and very strong program initiatives in a range of areas. We could be talking about environmental topics, public support for the arts, standards based reform in K-12 education. But you only take on a battle that you think you can win. And I really don’t believe journalism as a profession is prepared to have people on the outside help them and tell them what should be the core principles and values. So, our job, I believe, at this phase of our work is to provide them the tools, the opportunities to start the debate. And it’s happening. They’re issuing reports, the date is very compelling and also the market is telling them that. People aren’t reading newspapers like they were, they’re not watching the nightly news, and probably the market’s going to be a lot stronger force than something like…than an organization like ours could do to convince them that perhaps there’s a problem, and a big problem.

Heffner: But you see, that, that interest me so much… the market and your use, several times now of the word “profession.” Do you think journalism, and I’m sure you’re concerned as much with the masses of the media, the electronic media, as well as print…

Rimel: Absolutely.

Heffner: Then, are you really willing to characterize journalism today, in print or on the air as a profession?

Rimel: No question.

Heffner: Why?

Rimel: I believe…

Heffner: Not a business? A profession, rather.

Rimel: Well, a profession doesn’t necessarily have to be a business or not. I mean think about medicine and let’s draw a comparison here. Enormous training goes into becoming a journalist. There is a, if you will, an internship… most of the journalists in the country, they train and practice and are mentored by a more senior person in the field. Peer review is very important just as it is in medicine. There’s a pyramid structure… one can become the head of their department; one can become the head of their station or the head of their paper. It’s something that people aspire to… not only peer review, but acceptance by their colleagues. And it’s also something that has, as we said, market driven forces. So I think it fulfills every sort of benchmark we would have for a profession.

Heffner: Well, I guess that puzzles me because it seems to me that the problems we have been having in two other major areas… let’s take the law and let’s take medicine. Those problems have revolved around what many people have criticized as the de-professionalization of those fields. And one of our problems certainly in medicine is that the decisions are being made…medical decisions are being made not on medical basis, but on dollars and cents.. C-E-N-T-S… not S-E-N-S-E…basis. And again, I come back to the question as to whether the journalists you deal with… the good ones mustn’t all very much already know what the proper standards are, but have to fit in to high highly competitive dollar or rating dominated contemporary thing we call journalism.

Rimel: I think you’ve summarized it well. And in fact, it is just the things that have effected medicine, and if you will de-professionalized it that are happening in journalism. But it’s interest, there’s not really any regulation, per se, and to point is starkly… a surgeon has a person’s life in their hands. So does a journalist.

Heffner: Mmm, hmm.

Rimel: What he or she prints or says can destroy a life… a personal life as well as a professional life. So with that much power, one has to think hard about how they’re practicing their profession. And I don’t think that’s really been a very public conversation among journalists probably for at least the last three decades.

Heffner: But they’re not their own people, are they? You as a trained nurse were your own person. You knew what the right steps to take were and you took them. And you wouldn’t take stops that were antithetical to the, to the oath that you had taken to yourself to serve humanity. Journalists, except those who write independently, and perhaps write books, are within the structure… function within the structure in which a publisher sets the standards. No?

Rimel: They have their own ethics. They have their own grounding. They know exactly that they’re accountable first and foremost to themselves. In fact, I think the parallel is exactly the same. Nurses, physicians, work within big infrastructures… hospitals, medical systems. But they know the difference in right and wrong and they understand the power they have. And I believe good journalists need to understand it, and most of them do. You do occasionally hear journalists say, “hey, look, I’m just, you know, doing my thin here. I don’t have power.” Many of them have a hard time accepting the notion that they have a person or an institution or a career… fate in their hands. But in fact they do and therefore, they have a huge burden, a huge personal burden, a huge ethical burden. Sure they work in systems that are a changing. Yes, there’s the demand for ratings. Yes, they want more time….more eyeballs, if you will, on their newscast.

Heffner: Mmm, Hmm.

Rimel: But in fact it is the ethics, ultimately that really matters. And it is their own personal ethics.

Heffner: You know, it’s interesting because with the… not single exception, but with the singular exception of Fred W. Friendly, when Fred was here I would say, you were describing him even though he had worked within giant organizations. But many of the top people in media… the owners, the bosses have said on this program, ”Nobody in here but us chickens”, essentially, “look we just do and provide what the people want. They indicate that they want scandal, that they want sex, that they want violence. I haven’t found many practitioners who have been willing to say, that I as a trained person, medical person, nurse, lawyer… I’m willing to take my stand and do or not do what I think is in the public interest.

Rimel: Well, you know, we could debate a long time, whether it’s a supply problem or a demand problem.

Heffner: Mmm, hmm.

Rimel: Have we sort of weaned the public on to this? And therefore they have to supply it because that’s all the public wants? Or, in fact is it the other way around….

Heffner: What do you think?

Rimel: …but they produced it. I think it’s probably both. We’ve grown up on this now. And in fact there is..the supply and demand are working, if you will, in lockstep. But you know there’s an interesting survey that’s out… conducted by the Project on Excellence in Journalism. And they reviewed local television news in major media markets. And the question was,”if it bleeds, does it always lead?” Which as you know, is the sort of statement that give the public more of it and it will cause your rating to go up. More sensationalism, if you will. More sizzle, more sex that’s what they really want. Well, it turns out that’s not true. It turns out what the public wants is news and information that they can use. Yes, they want the weather. Yes, they want to know about crime in their local community. But they also want to understand and know about things that matter to them, their children, their lives, their community. A very unpopular sort of area of work that we’ve been funding is civic or public journalism. It’s been quite controversial and I tell you for the life of me I still don’t understand why.

Heffner: Why has it been controversial?

Rimel: I still don’t know. And I have talked and talked and talked to a lot of people because, for me, it is one more arrow in the quiver if you will, for journalists. If the public wants to hear about an issue and therefore also wants to be in a situation using the news that you give them to impact their lives and that of their community, why isn’t this a win-win situation? And yet it seems almost as a foreign object… it was described that way to me by a very prominent journalist, “we see this as a foreign object” and therefore we’re going to spend all our time trying to repel it.

Heffner: Is that because it feels to them as though it comes from the outside?

Rimel: Well, that’s what I took in the “foreign object.” But I think the best thing that can happen to this concept…

Heffner: Yeah…

Rimel: … is that the name goes away and people start describing it as “good old-fashioned shoe leather journalism.” Going out, talking to your constituents, seeing what’s on their mind, reporting, giving them facts…. I’m not talking about sugarcoating it, telling them what they need to know, and telling them what they can do about it. I mean that’s what a democracy depends on, and journalism is the key tool in keeping us educated and involved.

Heffner: Okay, Ms. Rimel, I then have to ask you as a logical, reasonable, rational person… what do you guess is behind this opposition? You say you don’t understand it. But you must have some sense of why it has, and I know it has cause, I’ve talked to journalists, raised the hackles on the part of many of them. Why? Do you think it’s because it’s simply conceived of as a do-good phenomenon?

Rimel: Well, let me give you the problems as I see it in terms of where it’s resisted. Size matters. It’s resisted in large media markets and large papers. It’s particularly a Northeast Corridor problem. When you go out into real America (laughter) if you will, papers are practicing it, they understand it, it’s increasing their subscriptions. It’s increasing their viewership, and they see it not only as a good thing to be doing, they see it as good for business. So, the resistance is really quite limited to larger news organizations and those, if you will, that…

Heffner: … that dominate.

Rimel: …that dominate and that we benefit from in the Northeast Corridor. So, I don’t want to paint it as sort of all one way. So that tells me the resistance may be more, sort of “we’ve always done it this way.” We don’t want the public necessarily telling us what the issues are that matter. And therein is where I get my hackles up a little bit. There’s a bit more than a little arrogance built into that. But you don’t find that in small papers, medium media markets, and you don’t find it, sort of… if you will, between here and California.

Heffner: I don’t want to be a wet blanket. But suppose you achieve success in your efforts. Suppose you bring together, as you say, that’s your objective… bring together people who will discovery for themselves the value of community journalism. Suppose you do that and you don’t…. aren’t able to do it with the big guys. Where are we then?

Rimel: We’re an awfully big success for all of those Americans who depend on the media, particularly on their newspapers for information that they can use, that impacts their lives. And as far as I’m concerned, if that happens, the Project will have been a huge success, we should pack up our tent and move on to another issue. Because then it really does become something that journalists should use. As I said, as another way to do… to practice their profession and do what they do best.

Heffner: To do good.

Rimel: To well, to do good… to do well by doing good. [Laughter].

Heffner: That is your philosophy that this is what can happen. They can do good and do well at the same time.

Rimel: Absolutely.

Heffner: They don’t believe it in the Eastern corridor, as you suggest. In the big cities.

Rimel: No, but you know, you’re starting to see the camel’s nose slip under the tent. Particularly around election coverage, which is something else we’re very interested in. Setting up debates… I’ll use our own paper in Philadelphia, The Enquirer and The Daily News, they’re sponsoring town meetings, they’re working with us in developing polling on what issues matter to Philadelphians as we get ready for this next mayor’s race. We’re doing it also in Minnesota and Maine. The public is saying, “you know, I want to get back in the ball game,” and just as a backdrop to all of this… Americans are really… many of them have checked out. I mean you know the data, they’re not voting, and then when you look at young people, they really have given up… on civic life and public participation. And I think we’re ignoring this at our own peril. If we get down to 25 to 30 percent of Americans voting in national elections, we have a very big problem. And the press and the media is the way to reach people and make… help them believe again that their vote and their voice matters. And most American’s don’t. They basically believe the country’s on autopilot. And they don’t really have any responsibility and even if they did care, they wouldn’t be heard. A very dangerous set of circumstances I think.

Heffner: Wouldn’t be heard. And you believe that civic journalism, community journalism will give people a voice which will encourage them to participate more and that it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy then.

Rimel: Only one small way. I mean I think there are many. And I don’t think that that’s the only and one right answer for journalism… certainly. In fact a lot of other work we’re doing the Pew Research Center For People in the press, providing accurate, fact-based polling data on what the public is thinking about policy matters, about elections and about the press. So I don’t…. all of these things really have to serve as getting fuel in the engine, getting the public turned on again, getting them to come out on… I guess what we call their virtual front porches… start talking to their neighbors again, starting to say, “you know, this learned helplessness that’s spread across the land… we’re all just here, there’s nothing we can do, we can’t take charge…” It’s very — it’s sort of almost un-American. This country’s building on entreprenerurship, “can do,” “we can solve problems”, but you don’t get that as you sort of talk to people, and particularly young people. And I think the media is the key lever to this.

Heffner: What do you think because you are interested in public opinion research… what do you believe should be… should be the relationship between a political person’s actions… his or her votes and an understanding of what it is the constituency wants and believes.

Rimel: Well, it goes back to your description of the journalist, or the physician and his or her ethics and inner sense of self, and to do what is right and wrong. You need all the data you can get because if you’re making decisions in a vacuum, that’s a pretty dangerous thing, too. But you can’t be driven by what you believe is the easiest way out. So if people are slaves to, if you will, opinion data and they say, “well, I’ll make fewer people angry if I go this way”, well, it’s not serving the country well and it’s certainly not serving that person well. But he or she would be foolish not to receive all of this information, say “how do my constituents feel because after all I’m put here in essence, at their will and to serve them… but in all honesty, based on my experience, based on my own value system, I really feel in my heart and my head that this is the right thing to do. So I think they have to listen. I think they have to take all of that information on board, they have to use data from polling that is reputable, not information that’s spun, or positioned in dishonorable ways. But when it really comes down to it… it’s the measure of a man or woman.

Heffner: If you were looking through, over the past generation, what would you say has been the fact of the matter in terms of the use of public opinion polls?

Rimel: Well, the public perceives, and probably with some merit, that candidates and people in public life are sort of slaves to this. And in fact folks that worry about image and spin and packaging, and whatever, are sort of recreating people and that we really don’t know what’s behind that veneer. We don’t know what value system a person might have that we might be voting for. That we’re putting our fate, if you will, or the fate of the country in their hands. Now that’s the perception and that’s why I believe that the public really is looking for authenticity. They’re looking for authenticity in the people they are going to elect, in the journalists from whom they want to get information. In what they read, they want the facts. They are very smart. You know, Americans are basically wise people. And they don’t want to be – they want to know when they’re being entertained and when they’re being informed, and they want to be able to slice that separately.

Heffner: Of course, at the present moment there is such a confusion, as you say, and as you write in this New York Times piece, between the entertainment and the information aspects of our media. Do you see any movement away from that?

Rimel: No, quite the contrary. I think we’re going the other way. And in fact we’re taking news to entertain and it is very hard, for most consumers, not just the less sophisticated ones to understand what they’re hearing and whether that is more information or entertainment. So I think this is a big problem. We need both in our society and we need a lot of both. But his is a … and I’m sure you know this… this is what some of the larger media companies are wrestling with because as they have to fill more, give more, 24 hours news and such, those lines are getting blurred.

Heffner: May I ask you, in the few minutes we have remaining, to look into the crystal ball. What do you think is going to happen in this whole area of your concern?

Rimel: Well, I’m an optimist, by nature.

Heffner: I – I –

Rimel: — [Laughter]. So you have to…

Heffner: I gathered that.

Rimel: You have to remember that. I think people are going to understand that they can make money by doing the right thing. And that we probably are going to develop outlets for news where the highest premium is put on authenticity. And we’re going to see candidates emerge who come across as the real thing. They may not be as glitzy and spun as the others, but people are going to resonate with that. I mean look at what we saw in Minnesota. And I really believe we’ve just at the moment of starting to turn that curve. We love being entertained and we love all of that. But when it comes down to making important decisions in our lives and the lives of our children, we want to know that we’re making it on the facts and when we’re picking people to lead us and we’re picking where we get our information sources, we want to know that it’s accurate, fact-based information and that we will then decide how we want to spin it for our own needs.

Heffner: What are your own projects that are upcoming now that will foster what it is you describe as what will happen and what you want to have happen?

Rimel: A couple of things. We’re working hard on increasing voter participation, particularly in how we conduct campaigns. We’re asking candidates all over the country to sign compacts that they will stand by their ads, they won’t go negative without attribution. That they will keep sort of the mud-slinging of campaigns. And then we’re asking journalists to hold them accountable to those compacts. We’re working on campaign finance reform because most Americans believe that their votes – one vote is not equal to one person, and we’re also working on new media – the Internet. We think this can be a huge factor in not only in how we get information, it already is. But even how we conduct campaigns and elections. Let alone how we buy things and how we communicate, how we separate fact from fiction. So these are just a few areas and many more. Perhaps you’ll invite me back and we can discuss them.

Heffner: Well, not before we use our next minute and let me ask you… in terms of the Internet… are you optimistic about our proper use… whatever in the world that might mean of the Internet given the total absence of controls.

Rimel: I am if we’re able to authenticate what we’re using. It comes back to newspapers and television. If people have a way, whether it’s through seals of approval or, I haven’t thought about all the ways, that they know that the information that they’re getting is not spun for them and it’s not driven by economic gain, but it is the news or information they need. Whether they’re buying something, whether they’re listening to a platform in a political campaign, then I think the Internet is going to have huge power for good.

Heffner: Well, I hope your optimism is born out. And Rebecca Rimel, I’m grateful to you for coming here today and helping spread that optimism.

Rimel: Oh, thank you for having me.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. And 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, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. (from original program transcriptionist ): Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.