The Press in a Free Society
VTR Date: September 19, 2005
Journalist Lou Boccardi discusses the press.
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GUEST: Louis D. Boccardi
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.
And for all the many times over the near-quarter century that he and I have talked together here about the press in America – both about its freedoms and whether they are in jeopardy, and about its responsibilities and whether they are adequately enough lived up to – in my own ever needling way I’m afraid that I’ve pressed my guest much more about its failures to act responsibly than about our failure to protect press freedoms … and not for its sake, but for ours!
Now that’s probably because Lou Boccardi has always been such a wonderful target as a major and highly respected presence in American journalism …. having sat for so many years at its very pinnacle as long-time President and CEO of the Associated Press.
But today – as we record this program — with New York Times reporter Judith Miller outrageously still in prison for the presumed crime of protecting press freedoms, that’s the end of the free press/responsible press spectrum for which I’d like to turn once more to my guest, who even in retirement now is so often sought out for that calm wisdom and fairness and balance he has always brought to matters of national importance.
So, Lou, here we are again … I’ll try not to needle and in fact, I really do feel somewhat chagrined as I look back over our transcripts … the fact that I was always needling you about press responsibilities instead of emphasizing press freedom and I wonder how you feel about that today.
BOCCARDI: Well I’m delighted to see that you’re now an enlightened interviewer and I thank you for your kind introduction. There are very serious problems in the direction that you’re talking about and I, I love the phrase you just used that these, these issues are not matter of protecting the press for the press’ sake, but really for the sake of the public, for the citizenry. And the clichés flow easily, but, you know, the press … the free press is so fundamental to this country and when you jail reporters in a context like the Miller case, I think ;you pose a very serious threat to that vital service that the press provides.
HEFFNER: Of course, I hope that by the time we’re seen in this program, Judith Miller will be a free woman. But the very fact that she has been incarcerated is something that I’m afraid I don’t think there are enough people who are aware of it, or are that much concerned about it.
BOCCARDI: I suspect a lot of people are aware of it, I think you’re probably right that people broadly are not concerned enough about it. You know it’s a very murky case. And you hear people say, “Well, Judith is holding herself above the law”.
No, no. She’s sitting in jail. She’s subjected herself to the law. And she’s there over a story that was never written … at least never printed, so the public knowledge is that it didn’t, didn’t exist. She did some interviewing but no story was ever written. And there she sits for not revealing who told her certain things. That to my mind is an outrageous use of the power of the State against a reporter.
HEFFNER: Some years ago when we were talking about, it was after the deed, of course, the first Gulf War was so short … and we were talking about what was happening there in terms of press freedom to cover the war. I don’t think we ever dreamed that there would come a time when this could be the case.
Did you? Or were you, were you that aware and was I just so oblique in my thinking?
BOCCARDI: No, you’re never oblique. I don’t think that any of us expected things to take quite the turn that they have. You know, the war … the first Gulf War raised some issues. In the second round we had embedding, which was an attempt to deal with some of those coverage issues. So, you know, controversy about the press, and difficulties in this area … are long standing. In a sense this has been going on since Jefferson’s day.
But you have now a confluence of changing technology, higher level of … I’ll say … political upheaval … and tension and all of that plays into, I think, some of these attitudes about the press that we’re talking about.
HEFFNER: Do you think we can go back? Do you think we can ever go back?
BOCCARDI: I don’t think that we ought to just surrender and say, “Well, the thing’s a mess and let’s forget it.” I think that basically I am not pessimistic. I think that there’s enough good being done, enough responsibility being shown and enough quarters in the media that I, I don’t think we’re doomed here to just constantly at being at war with the government or at war with each other, which is another aspect of the media discussion these days.
HEFFNER: When you say “war with each other”, what do you mean?
BOCCARDI: You know, we’ve become in a, in a sense our own favorite subject. I saw a cartoon some time ago, I think it was in the New Yorker, I’ll credit them … they’ll forgive me if I’m mis-crediting it … but the cartoon of the man sitting at a table, the camera … the TV studio, the camera turning on, saying “Well here we are again for another talk with members of the media about why the media talks so much about the media”.
BOCCARDI: And I, I think there’s a little … there’s some truth in that. We’ve become celebrities … not me, but you know some members of the media … the more visible members of the media become celebrities. You can hardly have any event happen now of some … of scope without … within a few hours … the second guessing starts about how the media did … “why aren’t you covering this or that?”.
So, there’s just so much greater scrutiny. To some degree scrutiny is, is great. Sometimes it becomes its own story, and that’s what I was alluding to.
HEFFNER: You always second guessed my frequent, very certain statement about the power of the press. You would take this modest … not quite “no one in here but us chickens” and you once said to me, when I said, “that’s the press’s attitude, you said on the air, “When did I ever say that?”.
Well, maybe you didn’t say quite that. But what is your feeling now, as you can, from a different perspective, not just look back at what happened, but look at the press today. What do you think about its power?
BOCCARDI: Well, look … we’ve, we’ve talked for a few minutes here now and in all of it, so far, has been about problems that the press faces.
BOCCARDI: Problems we’re, we’re coping with. So, you know, this all powerful press that, that lorded over everything, which you never exactly said, either, but that was the implication. I didn’t think it was true then, and I don’t think it’s true now. So, we … sure there’s a power in public expression. Technology has expanded that power now and put it in the hands of vastly more people. So I, I still don’t subscribe to the theory of this omnipotent press that can kind of get things to go the way it wants; it’s just not so.
HEFFNER: Well, thinking from our vantage point today, certainly there have been those who’ve said that in the coverage of Katrina, the press … the … certainly the electronic press, has played a very, very important role.
BOCCARDI: I think it has. And, that’s okay, that doesn’t make us power mad or people who are to be feared because of their power. We went in and reported the absolute horror of the conditions … those hundreds of thousands of people faced. And that provoked a reaction. That’s okay. That’s kind of what we do for a living.
HEFFNER: Yes, but … there was a constant matter of editorializing in the process. Wouldn’t you say that the emotion that was demonstrated, certainly by the people on television …
BOCCARDI: There was more emotion in reporting this story than you commonly see. It was a story of greater emotional impact than you commonly cover. We’ll spend a long time today trying to find a point where editorializing drops off or, or whether the passion of the moment … whether the pain that you’re trying to convey crosses over into editorializing.
If you’re there, as reporters were in the Super Dome … with people in the most horrific conditions and some of that horror shows in your reporting … I don’t think that that makes you an editorialist. I think that makes you a person trying to convey to someone who’s not there what it was like in that place, which was pretty bad. Awful.
HEFFNER: As a viewer, didn’t you find that there was much more than an expression of horror. How could there help but be, you’re, you’re quite right. They were there looking at … and showing us what they were looking at. Wasn’t there much more too?
BOCCARDI: Again, you know, it’s hard to find a point where you cross over between the passion and the editorializing. But I, I think … and I didn’t see all the coverage … I’m sure somewhere along the way someone said, “And they ought to do something about this”, which is a sentiment that belongs on the Editorial Page, not in the script of a correspondent or in a, in a news story. But overall I think if you look at the coverage of that … of the hurricane and the catastrophe that followed, you have to credit the press with doing a, a responsible and powerful job and focusing the efforts of the government, finally … after a few days of not nearly doing enough … focusing those efforts on, on relief for those people.
I’m not sure that that you’d have see the level of reawakening at FEMA and other levels of government without the pressure of press coverage. And that’s okay in my judgment. That doesn’t mean that we’ve given over to editorializing.
HEFFNER: Now, wait a minute. Where did … where do you draw the line there? You say, “That’s okay”. And I agree, that’s okay, because I’m glad for what happened. But where do you draw that …
BOCCARDI: Well, I don’t think a reporter should be saying that Mike Brown should be fired. I don’t think a reporter should be saying that the President was “out to lunch” if that’s what your news organization; the conclusion your news organization … the conclusion your news organization believes… I don’t think a reporter should be saying “And now the government should do this, this and that.” So there is … there are lies as an editor you deal with that sort of thing that sort of thing all the time.
So I think you can draw the lines. I think that it’s a mistake simply to take strong, emotional coverage, passionate coverage and condemn it all as editorializing. That somebody strayed … sure. I don’t doubt that.
HEFFNER: You say “strayed” …
BOCCARDI: “Strayed” into editorializing in, in what should have been news coverage. And I … I think if there was some of that and I’m, I’m ready to agree with you that there was … the burden of the press coverage here, the job the press did was to expose the inadequacy of the planning for this catastrophe and the inadequacy of the response to it.
That reporting, that exposure is, I think, a huge contribution to the public welfare. And I think the press deserves credit for that. It’s what we do, it’s our job.
HEFFNER: Now, now wait a minute … “it’s what we do, it’s our job”. What is? Rousing the public? Expressing one’s own indignation?
BOCCARDI: No. I didn’t’ say that.
HEFFNER: No. That’s why I’m asking.
BOCCARDI: Okay. No. Telling the detail of that story in a, in a way that you convey the … in this circumstance, the awfulness of it. That’s what we do. And that’s okay.
HEFFNER: What do you think is going to be the next step, in terms of the press? Do you think the coverage, whether we agree or disagree as to whether the line between reporting and editorializing was shifted a bit. Do you think it will have an impact upon the press? That event and its coverage?
BOCCARDI: I can’t say for sure, Dick. I don’t know. I think the, the … in the net, after things have gotten back, more toward normal, the press will be credited for, for what it did. Will it loose a new kind of coverage in which, you know, broadcast journalists and cable news was re-born with a new mission here to mix editorializing into its news? I think that’s a little exaggerated.
HEFFNER: You think it is exaggerated. You think it’s possible, though, I presume.
BOCCARDI: It’s possible, sure. But I don’t think that’s going to happen. This was a unique story with a unique impact on the people who, who covered it and a unique impact on, on the audience. Look at the millions, hundreds of millions of dollars and material and all that have been raised and, and sent. This is affecting people all over the country, indeed, in many parts of the world.
So you have a story that was really in its own class. And that had an impact on the coverage, on the people who did the coverage and on the people who consumed it.
HEFFNER: You think it will have an impact upon Judith Miller’s lot?
BOCCARDI: I don’t see any reason to think that it would. No. She’s in the hands of a prosecutor who wants some information from her and she’s not going to give it up. And the Grand Jury, the last I saw was to expire some time in April, which presumably is when she would be freed.
HEFFNER: The, the coming April. Why did I think it was October? Had it been extended? That means she’s going to be incarcerated for so much longer.
BOCCARDI: You may be aware of something that I’m not aware of. The last I saw was that it was to expire in April. And it can be extended, that’s for sure. I don’t know that it … that there’s been a decision to extend it.
HEFFNER: You know, I’ve been puzzled … not critical of the New York Times, except that it has made reference a number of times to the plight of its reporter. And of other reporters elsewhere. I guess in today’s paper it was in China.
Another Times, not reporter in the way that Judith is … but I’m surprised that there hasn’t been, on the masthead a “Free Judith Miller” kind of Liberator, to be historical about it … kind of exclamation. I just have the feeling not enough is … not enough indignation is being indicated.
BOCCARDI: Well, a “Free Judith Miller” banner every day would be very unlike The New York Times and I’m not sure it’s realistic to expect that.
But they have editorialized about her plight. They have written, certainly, a great deal about it. And you know there are also some other cases making their way through the pipeline involving other reporters that pose the same issues as the, as the Miller case. So, this isn’t in isolation, this one reporter and this one circumstance and one prosecutor.
HEFFNER: Of course, you … in, in thinking about the changes that have to come within the media themselves. In reading what you have had to say recently, in terms of your participation in the Independent Panel that looked into the Dan Rather …
HEFFNER: …. business at CBS. You seem to feel that the, the problem of the un-attributed quote or the anonymous source is one of our most important problems in the press.
BOCCARDI: It’s certainly a problem with a lot of the public, in my experience. Where, if they see something without a name attached to it, it diminishes the credibility of what you’re saying. I do think that realistically you, you cannot flat out ban all reliance on the anonymous source.
I think in the CBS case the problem was they got this material from someone who they weren’t really sure where that person got it from and, you know, the whole thing. Not to re-open CBS, but the whole thing sort of fell in on itself because the sourcing was, at best, obscure.
I think in, in … speaking more generally, that anonymity is something we should avoid whenever possible At AP I put down a few rules that aimed at curbing it and we were successful in curbing it some.
But it’s a mistake to say you can’t ever take information from somebody without a name. Now when you get the information, that doesn’t mean you just slap it on your wire or in your newspaper without further verification.
Of course you do a great deal of background checking and verifying and you’re trying to come in other ways to the information you’ve been given. But, a lot of important stories .. and Watergate is the one we all cite, wouldn’t have come to light if there were not a willingness to rely on a source and a willingness on the part of a source to speak up based on his trust that his identity would be protected.
HEFFNER: Of course, I, I … you may totally disagree with this … and it’s a matter of observation … and you may not have observed this, or observed its opposite. My impression is that recently there have been more …
HEFFNER: … anonymous source used. When I think of the major newspaper that I read, I’m … maybe it’s because I’m so aware of the damn business … there’s an explanation more frequently now in the Times.
HEFFNER: That because this person, so-and-so … would not permit his name to be used, but that seems to be increasing rather than decreasing. Is that your impression?
BOCCARDI: I don’t have an impression that it’s increasing. I think, in my reading of that newspaper and some others, it’s decreasing.
But you’re absolutely right, now there is this little additional explanation that purports to tell the reader why the person won’t let his name be used.
BOCCARDI: I, I don’t … yeah. I choose that word exactly. I don’t think this is a bad idea, but I don’t think it does too much for the reader who doesn’t like the fact that he or she doesn’t know where this came from. Who said the Mayor was a dope? You know, I need to know in order to evaluate all of this information. So it’s an effort to give the reader a little bit more than just a source familiar with the matter.
That’s the frustrating … frustrating … the bare bones explanation. So you have this little phrase “who didn’t want to be named because the report’s going to come out next Friday and his boss is going to get credit for it.” That doesn’t, in my mind dramatically change the rules of engagement as to how you shouldn’t rely on anonymous sources.
HEFFNER: You know it’s interesting, Lou, in these rules of engagement … I know that you, as a manager, at the helm of the Associated Press, you had your principles and you had your procedures. Before you said the reader, the audience doesn’t like this. Do you think … is there good evidence that the audience really cares, or is this a matter of what responsible people in the press can …
BOCCARDI: No, there are surveys that show anonymity, that reveal that anonymity in the news is at a minimum an annoyance and at the other end, very much an issue in the credibility of the press in a segment of the audience. Now the number shift, you know surveys can find almost everything about anything and change the wording of the question a bit and you get a little different answer.
But, no, there are enough surveys to convince me that it’s an issue for the public. And therefore, we’re best off relying on anonymity as little as possible. There are times when you have to and then you take the information they give you, try to find it in, in other ways … you weigh the reliability of the person who’s telling it to you … “Was he or she in the room? Does he or she have a motive that might make you suspicious; share with your reader or viewer some of that background.
So, there are weighs to deal with this, this isn’t mysterious. But I, I think in my … to go to your question … is, there is less and there’s this little explanation, more commonly. Maybe that makes it seem like to the viewer …
HEFFNER: Okay, alright. And, and I grant that. And I just really wanted to check it through with you, who … you’re a better observer than I am. What you’ve observed in the period since you were here last, which is not all that long … but I wonder whether you have anything further to say about the jeopardy that the press is finding itself in … fewer and fewer and fewer readers, let’s say, of the printed press.
BOCCARDI: There’s no question that there are fewer readers of the printed press. And network television is down. 30 or so years ago 85% of the audience looked at network news. Now with all the news, all the forms in which news is available, including on the cell phone in your pocket, that’s down below 50% and I saw some numbers that put it in the 40% of the audience range. And print circulation is slowly eroding and in a few cases, not so slowly.
So, yeah, that’s of …of course of concern. The Internet is behind some of that. The gross of cable television, cable news, 24 hour cable is part of the explanation for all of that. I don’t think there’s less interest in news, it’s just being consumed in different ways and so you have newspapers looking at the Internet and developing ways in which to make Internet … the Internet part of their interaction with their audience; accepting that some people are not going to pick up a printed newspaper. There’s still something like 50 million papers a day sold, so you know, it’s not … not … hasn’t disappeared and I don’t think it’s about to.
HEFFNER: Do you think this has as negative an impact as some people do, upon the presence of an educated public, a knowledgeable, well informed public which is the only real basis for democracy?
BOCCARDI: You’re absolutely right about the only basis for democracy being an informed public. The fact, though, is that I don’t think you can insist that that informed public become an informed public only and exactly in the way that it was becoming an informed public in 1930 or 40 or 60 or 75 or 85, you know. So, the technology has evolved and so there are new and different forms now.
I think the challenge for us journalists is to make sure that the … in these new forms we still perform the function that was, in a sense a little simpler to perform when fundamentally, you know, you picked up the newspaper in the morning, and you came home in the evening and you read the evening paper and that’s how you kept up with things. Now there’s such a proliferation that, that’s a naïve picture.
HEFFNER: What’s your own impression, in 30 seconds, as to whether, because of this, we are, as well informed or less well informed.
BOCCARDI: I’d like to say we’re better informed, but in my heart I’m not sure that’s true. I still hear too many well educated, who say, “Well, I don’t pay any attention to that any more. You know I have my own way of getting information.” And that makes me uneasy, so I’m not sure that everyone, with all this profusion of media … that everyone is so much better informed.
HEFFNER: Lou Boccardi, you’ve got to keep coming back. I so much appreciate you’re joining me on The Open Mind again.
BOCCARDI: Thank you.
HEFFNER: It’s the one time when I, I can feel a little more modest because I know you’re going to put me down if I’m not. Thanks so much, Lou.
BOCCARDI: You’re very welcome.
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 $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.
Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”
N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.