Columbia Journalism School

Peter R. Kann, Knight-Bagehot Anniversary Dinner

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November 1, 2006
Columbia University, New York, NY

Press Freedom—and Press Responsibilities


Remarks of Peter R. Kann, Chairman, Dow Jones & Company

Pleasure to be here addressing the Knight-Bagheot dinner.

This program provides a flow, year after year, of exceptional talent to the world of business journalism.

And Dow Jones and The Wall Street Journal clearly have been beneficiaries, as evidenced by your graduates at our tables tonight – and in our many news bureaus beyond.

I want to talk a bit this evening about the press--or the media as we more inclusively call it these days--and about some of the problems I see in its practice. Problems that have been magnified in an age of television, and that the Internet has magnified and multiplied yet further.

But first, I should note that there is nothing particularly new about press failings, or criticism of them.

Thomas Jefferson, a better American president than we have had in a very long time, penned a famous phrase back in 1787:

“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without government, I would not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
By 1807, in his seventh year as president and after seven years of being subjected to severe press criticism, Mr. Jefferson wrote:

“I deplore the putrid state into which our newspapers have passed, and the malignity, the vulgarity and the mendacious spirit of those who write them.”

You’ll be relieved, however, to know that Mr. Jefferson did remain true to his primary principle:

“The press,” he concluded, “is an evil for which there is no remedy. Liberty depends upon freedom of the press and that cannot be limited without being lost.” He was right then, and we are right now, to prefer a free press, however flawed, to any controlled alternative.

So, as a journalist, as a former publisher, and as someone who for years ran a content-based information company producing newspapers, magazines, TV channels, wire services, and Internet sites--my primary product is news. Now, it is not to denigrate the value of other products-from cars to computer chips to cornflakes, to suggest that news is a unique, and, I thing we’d agree uniquely important, product.

At its best news informs and enlighten the citizens of a free society and thereby safeguards and strengthens our democracy. At its worst—dishonest, unfair, irresponsible—the media has potential to erode the public trust on which its own success depends and, worse, to corrode the democratic system of which it is so indispensably a part.
In whatever form, we in the news business have the potential to provide useful or useless information, to inform or misinform, to seek facts and truths or merely to seek ratings and profits, to treasure our First Amendment security blanket or to wave it in the public’s face like matador to bull, to focus exclusively on press freedom or to also accept responsibilities that go with rights.

Americans enjoy the world’s least restricted press freedom, and American citizens have access to the widest array of media choices. Our constitution even grants the press, at least in many circumstances, the essential right to be wrong.

Having said that, let me add that it is not in the interest of the press, or of the society we serve, to be wrong too often—not on facts, but more importantly, not on larger values and standards. Thus, while I will hold up our media as a model in terms of freedom—and that is paramount—I will not hold much of it up as a model of wisdom, propriety, or responsibility to its own ideals.

And so, as a newsperson and as a concerned citizen I want to devote most of this talk not to a sermon on press freedom, but to a serious look at some of the problems of our press.

I should say early on that there are some largely positive trends in the modern media landscape.

For those of us here who grew up with 3 or 4 TV channels (or none?), cable TV with 100+ channels presumably is better – even if most programming is not.

The Internet is a largely positive innovation, letting us access countless sources of information at a finger tap and at moments notice – even if we are raising generations of kids less likely to read or, more importantly, to distinguish among the sources of information they access.

And, much as I might imagine some golden age of American Journalism, it probably never existed. For every Walter Lipmann or James Reston there was a Walter Winchell and a Father Coughlan. For every enlightened publisher like The Journal’s Barney Kilgore, there were multiple McCormacks and Hearsts and worse.

Still, as I watch CNN flashing its logos each day – “Broken Borders,” “Broken Government,” “Broken Politics,” Broken Everything – I can’t help thinking the media too is in need of some mending. So, let me touch on ten current trends that disturb me.

First, there is an ever more bothersome blurring of the lines between journalism and entertainment. There is room for both, of course, and both can be well done. And the lines, some will argue, are not always black and white. But, fundamentally, most of us still know the difference between news and entertainment when we read or see it. And we should want very badly to preserve the distinction. Journalism that puts too high a priority on entertaining
is almost destined to distort and mislead. Entertainment that masquerades as news is even more insidious because it taints and tarnishes real journalism.

Compounding this confusion is a diffusing definition of “journalist.”
When political operatives moonlight at moderating news shows, when people alternate between being political editors and political consultants, when celebrity newspeople pocket $20,000 fees speaking at corporate conventions while criticizing Congressman for conflicts of interest -- we jumble public perceptions of newspeople as well as news.

Second, there is the blurring of lines between news and opinion. Again, there is room for both. For news pages and editorial opinion pages. For news readers and news commentators. For political reporters and political pundits.

But, in the U.S. more than in most societies, there once was a clear distinction that now, all too often, is disappearing. Newspapers, at least, have a format that helps maintain the distinction. The Internet, television and most magazines have neither that format nor that tradition. The results, all too frequently, are a blending of news and views. The two, in my opinion, are not ingredients to mix together for a tastier meal. They are different courses—meat and dessert.

Part of the problem here lies in fashionable new philosophies that argue there are no basic values of right and wrong, that news is merely a matter of views, that truth is only in the eye of the beholder. It’s a dangerous philosophy for society, and a dagger at the heart of genuine journalism—of seeking, fact by fact, to report and write the truth.
A third area of unfortunate blending these days is between news and advertising, sponsorships or other commercial relationships. The resulting porridges may be called “advertorials” or “infomercials”; they may be special ad sections masquerading as news, news pages driven by commercial interests, or web pages where everything somehow is selling something.

Whatever the variant, it’s become stylish these days to suggest that the Chinese Wall which traditionally has separated news from advertising, needs to go the way of the Berlin Wall. I couldn’t disagree more.

Now, news and advertising each have value for readers or viewers. But that value, I’d argue, depends on clear distinctions. Without them, over time, readers, viewers or users lose confidence in the veracity of a news medium. And advertisers lose too, because they lose the business benefit of an environment of trust. Confusing these news and commercial interests ultimately serves neither interest.

Fourth, there are problems and pitfalls inherent in pack journalism. Individually, most journalists are decent, dedicated, fair-minded people. We like to view ourselves as individualists, not conformists: as independent thinkers, not conveyor belts for conventional wisdom.

By and large the lone reporter lives up to that self-image. But then put a few dozen reporters together chasing the same story and some strange infection seems to take hold. And what we see, all too often, is a pack of hounds in pursuit of a quarry.
The press, en masse, tends to lose its common sense and its sense of fairness and independence. Its standards seem to drop to the lowest common denominator.

We frequently see this phenomenon in political reporting, where the faint whiff of scandal, or even of weakness, can send the pack in hot pursuit. At its worst, the pack, not finding a real problem, proclaims the “perception” of one and this perception becomes self-fulfilling.

Fifth, there’s the issue of conflict and context. It is sadly true that we live in an often divided and sometimes violent society. We have extremists on almost any social issue, from flag waving to flag burning; from abortion-on-demand to all-abortion-banned. These are real issues and the media is right to focus on them. The problem, however, is perspective.

On most issues most Americans are not on polar extremes. On abortion, for example, most Americans seek a sensible center. They don’t much approve of abortion. They also believe a woman should have a right of choice. Where is that center reflected in media coverage that mainly portrays rabid feminists or irate pro-life activists? Balance, in fact, is not achieved by the TV talk show format of two extremists yelling at each other.

Most Americans live with real concerns about crime. But how many of us recognize our own communities from their depiction on nightly local TV news shows--a nonstop video montage of mayhem, murder, rape, arson, child molestation and more? As the local TV saying goes: “If it bleeds, it leads.”
Normalcy, some will say, is not news. And it is true that a plane crash is more interesting to most of us than yet another plane landing safely. (Unless you happen to be on it.) But, even accepting this standard of what makes news, there surely is a need for more perspective, proportion, balance, context, and relevance to American reality than much of the media bothers to provide. Not all issues in American society can be captured in term of conflict.

Not all issues lend themselves to our sports metaphors of winners or losers. It surely is not fair to blame the messenger—the media—for alerting us to problems. But there also ought to be more media recognition that the messages we chose to carry—and how we convey them—shape the society of which we are a part.

Sixth, there is an exaggerated tendency toward pessimism in much of the U.S. media. I am not speaking now of skepticism and criticism. The former is essential to the media’s role; the latter is very often warranted by the facts. Pessimism, however, is a different thing. It’s a mind-set that assumes the worst and thus risks bending reality to fit that framework. Just look back a few years over much of the media coverage of “American competitiveness.” All those news magazine covers on the coming “Japanese Century”. And, along with it, all the pessimism about the ability of American industry to compete in a global arena. It was nonsense.

Similarly, it’s one thing—and an appropriate one—for the press to probe particular instances of political corruption. It’s quite another thing to jump to the cynical conclusion that our political process, and all politicians, are corrupted—that “they all do it.” They don’t and they aren’t. The point here is that truth is not always gloom and doom. My guess is that may even apply to the war in Iraq.

Seventh, and related to pessimism, is a growing media fascination with the bizarre, the perverse and pathological—John Mark Karr journalism. From our supermarket tabloids with their headlines about three-headed, six-hundred-pound babies and the afternoon TV talk shows with their focus on infanticide and incest --it’s an all too short journalistic journey to magazine covers and so called magazines-of-the-air that magnify the significance of crackpots and criminals.

More worrying, such so-called journalism helps instantly legitimize almost any crackpot idea, deviant behavior, or alleged victimization in our society. My point is not to argue for “good news” vs. “bad news,” but to ask whether much of this amounts to news at all?

We in the media ought to ask ourselves more honestly and more often why we play news events as we do. Think back a few years. Was a retired running back allegedly killing his wife really the crime of the century, the story of the year, or an event laden with social, racial and legal significance? Look at the massive media coverage of the appalling behavior of a small group of U.S. soldiers at an Iraqi prison – Abu Ghareb. Was that in any way reflective of the U.S. military, of several hundred thousand soldiers, or was it even truly relevant to the war – whatever you think about the war?
Look at the nightly programming on the three so-called news channels – CNN, Fox, MSNBC. To me these are among the great disappointments of modern media. For every hour of anything remotely resembling news we get two hours of talking heads exploiting the murder or pedophilia of the month – Natalee Holloway, Jon Benet Ramsey, Anna Nicole Smith and on and on.

Does all of this really reflect news judgments? Is it pandering to the straw man called “public demand”? Is it marketing masquerading as news judgment?
Perhaps all of the above.

Eighth, I’ll suggest we must be more wary of social orthodoxy, or political correctness, reflected in a media whose job is not to parrot prevailing fashions, but to question, probe and thereby challenge them. The job of journalism should be to get beyond stereotypes, simplifications and sound bites; beyond heroes and villains. To ask itself whether so-called “leaders” speak for broad constituencies, or for cliques and narrow interests. Journalism, by its nature, rarely will be profound. We’re not writing theses or history. But we still have to remember issues have more than one side, that opinions never are monolithic. Businessmen are not, by definition, greedy, and environmentalists, by definition, saintly. Third-world poverty is not, by definition, a result of overpopulation as opposed to inane economic policies. And so on.

In partial defense of the press here I should add that political leaders and pressure groups have become increasingly skillful at feeding and manipulating the media. We also have a whole host of social activists and self-interested class action lawyers who rely on the media to amplify often simplistic, self-serving, single-issue messages. That, however, makes it all the more incumbent on the media to seek out and reflect the fullest range of views, and to avoid being led--or fed--by those who happen to be most skillful at it.

Ninth, there’s the matter of attention span. It’s a very rare issue or event that can long sustain the interest and focus of our media. Yet, obviously, the larger issues of our times are longer-term ones. And the biggest problems of societies take the longest to resolve.

The dilemma here is who or what to blame. As we, the press, hop from Baghdad to Beirut, from Natalee Holloway to Natalie Plame, from Super Bowls to Super Tuesday’s we justifiably can blame some combination of the nature of the news and the short attention span of the public. And our public, meanwhile, bombarded and bewildered, can blame the fickle and shallow press. There’s probably enough blame to share. But the fact is that we see too little sustained public or press focus. There are too many instant celebrities. Too many two-day crises. Too many so-called “defining moments” from people in search of instant history. Basically, in a world where everything is considered critical, nothing needs to be taken very seriously.

Lastly, there’s the matter of power. The U.S. media—in sum and even in many of its larger parts—is a powerful presence in our system and society. We shouldn’t really aspire to power. The press’s purpose ought to be to empower its readers and viewers by providing them with relevant information on which to make individual decisions.

Still, press power, or at least influence, is a fact of our life and times.
But the media cannot really have it both ways. The press is at least partially responsible for greater public skepticism toward almost all large, traditional and powerful institutions in America. And that, by and large, is fine. But the truth, not lost on our public, is that the press is a large and powerful institution too.

The truth is that 60 Minutes is more powerful than almost all of the subjects it exposes. An anchorman or an editor of a major newspaper has more ability to influence public affairs than do most congressman and senators. The Wall Street Journal, arguably, has more influence on national economic policy, than do most corporations it covers.

Networks are now owned by giant industrial corporations, magazines by entertainment conglomerates, and most newspapers by national chains.
We cannot plausibly pretend to be a little David out there smiting Goliaths and expect the public to believe it. We shouldn’t pretend to be what we are not.

All of which brings me the obvious. Along with power, or at least influence, should go more responsibility. So, here is a traditionalist prescription -- all the more important in business journalism than in the wider world of general news -- because customers actually make decisions based on what business journalists write:

  • Accuracy. The maximum effort to get it right. Fact by fact by fact.
  • Fairness. An open mind. The seeking out of various points of view, in pursuit of truths.
  • Modesty. A sense of satisfaction in being conveyors of useful information, rather than entertainers, crusaders, ideologues, or prosecutors.
  • Human Decency. Remembering that we are human beings first and journalists second.

Basically, remembering the childhood golden rule. Because those in the media wouldn’t want to be criticized without an opportunity to respond. They wouldn’t want to be the targets of ambush journalism. They wouldn’t want a microphone shoved in their face at a moment of intense personal tragedy. And they wouldn’t want their private lives to be public information.

All of this taken together may add up to a more negative portrayal of our press than I intend. There clearly are some media voices, including, I hope you’ll agree, The Wall Street Journal, that try very hard --though not always to perfection--to provide serious news for serious people.

I have focused on flaws and failings, rather than strengths, precisely because we in the media are so often and appropriately critical of other institutions. Thus, we ought on occasion to turn an unfiltered spotlight on ourselves.

Well, as I said at the outset, news is my business. Now, to the extent these unhappy trends largely are those of the mass media --of TV, mass circulation magazines, tabloid newspapers, Internet blogs--I could say “so what?”

Indeed to the extent the decline of standards in the mass media distinguishes our own publications like The Wall Street Journal because we hold to higher standards, focus on serious news, serve serious audiences—I could say “good, it means better business for us.”

But I also think it is not a good thing, even for best of breed, if its general species is in decline. It’s not a good thing in any industry, even for quality and value leaders, to see others selling substandard product. In short, we’d rather be the best in an industry of quality producers than one of the few quality producers in an industry all too often hawking junk.

Finally, of course, this all matters because, as I believe you’d agree, values like honesty, integrity, and truth ought to underpin any business in any industry—and above all in one that so influences our society at large.

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