THE NEWS AT ANY COST; How Journalists Compromise Their Ethics to Shape the News. By Tom Goldstein. Simon and Schuster. 301 pp. $18.95.
THE NEWS at any cost? How journalists compromise their ethics? The title and subtitle are overwrought, and indeed belie the tone of calm inquiry and analysis that prevails in the text of this interesting and careful book.
To be sure, examples of arrogance and even vice in the press are not hard to find. One television producer has pronounced that ''ethics to me is a lot of crap," and Robert Scheer, the reporter who lured Jimmy Carter into the famous remark about lust in the heart, has prescribed dubious, even lawless methods against recalcitrant "politicians." "The reporter's job," says Scheer, "is to get the story by breaking into their offices, by bribing, by seducing people, by lying, by anything else to break through that palace guard."
By Tom Goldstein's own admission, journalistic ethics is, if not exactly a contradiction in terms, at least a moot and debatable field. Precisely because journalists are protected by the First Amendment from official censorship, they cannot be licensed. And there are no guild-like rules or codes of behavior that define who is, and who isn't, a journalist.
Yet my own sense of the matter, after nearly 30 years in the trade, is that there is a more structured and orderly sense of ethics among journalists than it is to Goldstein's purpose to concede. He is naturally more concerned with egregious examples.
The author, however, does bring a useful perspective to the topic. He was trained as a lawyer, but has been a New York Times reporter, a press secretary (to Mayor Ed Koch of New York) and a college teacher of journalism.
The strength of this book is its leg work. Goldstein narrates and analyzes the more interesting journalistic controversies of recent years, such as the Sharon and Westmoreland libel cases, the use by a Wall Street Journal reporter of his stock-market gossip column for personal gain, and the embarrassing embroilment of The Washington Post in the Janet Cooke and Carter "bugging" episodes. Of all the stories he tells, perhaps the most astonishing is that for a time Mayor Koch or a member of his staff could "dictate" editorials to Rupert Murdoch's New York Post and, for the most part, expect to see them run "as dictated."
Goldstein offers measured judgments on these and other issues of press abuse, although for the most part his judgments reflect what I would take to be the ethical consensus in the trade. Goldstein, for instance, is against "ambush interviews" by television, in which unwary subjects are suddenly accosted by rolling cameras. He disapproves of electronic eavesdropping and hidden cameras as journalistic tools. And he rightly castigates the press, or offending segments of it, for using the power of exposure cruelly and pointlessly and for piously invoking the First Amendment in defense of the morally indefensible.
SO FAR so good. For a writer with a legal background, however, Goldstein seems to me a bit weak on the broader implications of the First Amendment. He refers to journalists as belonging to "a special occupation . . . granted privileges by the Constitution." These are treacherously double-edged words, however, which make only a limited and qualified sense.
Just as all speakers, including professional orators who speak for money, benefit from the constitutional right of free speech, professional journalists benefit from freedom of the press. But it was not designed for their special protection. Whatever the organized press may claim, or its critics deny, freedom of the press is a right (not a privilege) for all who write and publish, even by copier or mimeograph machine. That First Amendment rights are at once more fundamental and less specialized than is sometimes supposed, is a point that needs to be made over and over again. And Goldstein, it seems to me, fails to make this clear.
For instance, Goldstein cites Chief Justice Warren E. Burger's off-the-cuff dicta (in a 1978 Supreme Court decision called First National Bank of Boston v. Belotti, upholding a bank's right to practice partisan political advocacy in its advertising). And he tells us, echoing the Chief Justice's remarks, that "if the media behave just like any other business, they will be treated like other business, and soon they will be regulated. . . ."
This is fuzzy-minded stuff indeed, though Goldstein only echoes the wooliness of the original. What the chief justice said is that "large media conglomerates," which are often very profitable, have no special claim on First Amendment rights.
But Burger is, as he no seldom is, about 30 degrees off the point. It is the right to publish controversial opinions, not an imagined right to profit from it, that is at issue. The author and the publication, in that capacity, and not the company who happens to own or control them economically, enjoy First Amendment protection.
Thus the bluster about "large media conglomerates" -- whatever their resemblances to banks, few or many -- is irrelevant, for nothing in the nature of the "media business" exempts it, as business, from the treatment meted out to other businesses. Publishers are not exempt from fire codes, taxes, health and zoning regulations, or any other lawful forms of regulation, and neither ask nor expect to be. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine just what point the Chief Justice thought he was making, or why Goldstein should find it a significant warning for the press. (Blather admittedly takes on a certain notoriety when it issues from distinguished sources; but it remains blather for all that.)
The News At Any Cost, ignoring the implications of its title, is a book of exceptionable value. If it has a flaw, beyond those already noted, it lies in Goldstein's preoccupation with the New York City press scene -- and such less than cosmic questions as whether his old paper, The New York Times, makes a pet of Judge Irving Kaufmann, or whether the New York police issue too many special license plates to celebrity journalists. Even if the answer to both questions is yes, as it seems to be, there are far less parochial issues of press behavior and performance to ponder in the vast regions beyond the Hudson.
There is beyond doubt a growing restlessness, susceptible of exploitation by ideologues and demagogues, over the press's performance and "ethics." No trade whose performance is so public, or so essential to the public's well-being by the trade's own claim, can afford to be complacent or contemptuous of reasoned criticism, or to take its ethical bearing from the swashbuckles who produce television "magazine" shows.