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Even a Free Press Can Use a Bit of Oversight

By Murray Seeger
Sunday, December 4, 2005

In a conversation not long ago, the president of a major university asked me about the various scandals haunting the mainstream media: Why can't the news media get their house in order? he wondered.

I mumbled the usual platitudes about over-eager reporters, overstretched editors and stressed-out executives under immense pressure to hold their print and television audiences against new forms of competition. And sensing that we were headed toward a debate about whether the media's problems were severe enough to require some sort of oversight, I cited the clause in the First Amendment of the Constitution that prohibits the government from making any laws "abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press."

"Well, why not self-regulation?" the educator asked. An engineer by training, he was accustomed to cutting to the heart of the matter without rhetorical foreplay.

Well, yes, why not? The answer is simple: Publishers, broadcast companies and digital news enterprises do not want outsiders dictating how journalists do their work. Owners and editors insist that they will set the conditions and standards for their staffs' daily work.

This was the main reason why -- more than 50 years ago -- the nation's media rejected most of the suggestions of a commission that recommended a variety of journalistic reforms. Inspired and financed by publisher Henry Luce, the national commission was headed by Robert M. Hutchins, the young president of the University of Chicago, and it included several lawyers, academics and former government officials, but no representatives of the media.

In 1947, Hutchins's group issued its report, titled "A Free and Responsible Press." A couple of its proposals -- asking news organizations to engage in more self-criticism and to hire ombudsmen -- have gained some acceptance. But its major recommendation -- creating a national news council to monitor the industry and hear grievances -- proved a failure when finally implemented.

The idea itself languished for years. It came back to life only because of the bitter relations between the Nixon administration and the media in the early 1970s, which led a foundation, the Twentieth Century Fund, to do a study and issue a report calling again for a national news council. Many in the major media (including top executives and editors at The Washington Post and the New York Times) opposed such a council as a threat to the First Amendment.

The Twentieth Century Fund report had warned that a council would fail unless it had media support. Nonetheless, with funding from several foundations and some media organizations, the National News Council got underway in 1973. It investigated complaints against the press until early 1980, but, unable to penalize any wrongdoers and ignored by many in the industry, it died a mostly unmourned death soon after.

But the idea of oversight is still alive. Britain has reorganized its former press commission into a stronger Press Complaints Commission that has punished some egregious practices. In the United States, the Knight Foundation recently made a joint grant to news councils in Minnesota and Washington state, asking them to oversee a nationwide competition for two seed grants of $75,000 to form comparable councils in other states. Hawaii has the only other state news council.

This ripple of interest coincides with decisions by some major media companies, embarrassed by their managerial failures, to call in outsiders to investigate their procedures and performances and to recommend corrections. In this light, perhaps now the industry would seriously consider several proposals for using external guidance to improve journalistic standards and to give the public a basis on which to judge its practices.

It has been a truism for some years that the public's confidence in the media and journalists as a group lingers in the territory of HMOs and used car salesmen. There is no recovery in those charts because each time the litany of media scandals seems to subside, a fresh outrage comes to light.

Most of us who have worked in this trade for more than a few decades know that journalistic scandals are not new. What is new is the omnipresence of so many forms of news delivery -- including Internet blogs, which exist somewhere between gossip and journalism -- that provide fodder for organizations determined to undermine public confidence in what they call the liberal media. In this atmosphere, many younger journalists are intimidated while others relish opportunities to discuss their work and take sides on public issues. Phased into history is the rule we veterans were trained under: "Reporters don't make news."

More than ever, the industry needs a set of rules for journalists to follow and for the public to understand. But there is no mechanism for drafting a code that would get broad acceptance. Various drafts have been floated, but they have no legs; they gather dust on shelves. Meanwhile, the public is left to the mercy of those who fill the atmosphere with a mixture of fact, opinion, rumor and speculation about the workings of the media and journalists.

To start bringing some order to this cacophonous environment, one or several of the big public interest foundations should sponsor a new citizens' commission to undertake a broad survey of the public media with the goal of suggesting forms of self-regulation. This commission could provide the industry with universal standards and give the public tools to sort out the practitioners of journalism from the purveyors of propaganda and mere noise.

Yes, this sounds like a replay of the Hutchins commission, but the communications world has changed so much that a new commission would have plenty of new work to do. The predecessor group did not have broadcast television to examine, much less cable networks or the Internet's various outlets. Unlike the Hutchins commission, a new commission should include media company representatives, as well as citizens.

The initiative for the new study should come from foundations that are not associated with the publishing or broadcasting industry. These foundations would have to possess the prestige and civic-mindedness that would make it difficult for the industry to ignore their effort and would provide the public with assurance that the study would be independent of any group's agenda.

Along with a clear, comprehensive report on the state of the First Amendment, the new commission should recommend performance standards and ethics that would command public attention and, perhaps, prove so realistic that the owners and managers would have to accept them. Perhaps this new group would offer a sustainable plan for a new national news council as well as more state or regional councils.

Of course, there is an alternative: The industry could continue to thrash around in ethical confusion and lose even more public support. In the meantime, the vacuum would likely be filled by those well-organized, well-financed ideological groups that believe the media has too much autonomy and must be disciplined through government intervention. These zealots are anxious to limit the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment; they are just waiting for the right conditions to shift their tactics from criticizing to taking radical political action.

Author's e-mail: murseeg@aol.com

Murray Seeger specialized in economic reporting during a 45-year reporting career, which included more than a decade abroad for the Los Angeles Times. He recently published "Discovering Russia: 200 Years of American Journalism," a history of reporting from Russia by U.S. correspondents.

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