We of the press ought to admit it: there are too many violations of journalistic ethics. One violation alone should ring alarms all through the profession. And it is no defense at all to argue that there are far fewer offenses today than there were in the full flower of yellow journalism, and it's possible there are fewer than ever before. The fact is that many in our profession have been guilty of conflicts of interest, have been guilty of presenting outright fiction as fact, have been guilty of irresponsible and prejudicial reporting.
In this atmosphere of suspicion the corporation or the government agency with an ax to grin finds itself on common ground with a public that also believes the media may have gone too far.
I believe that this suspicion will persist until we are willing to apply to ourselves the same standards we demand of others.
We investigate conflict of interest on the part of public officials. Yet too many media executives are reluctant to acknowledge their own conflict of interest when they take editorial positions on legislation or community projects that can affect their own company's holdings. And that potential for conflict of interest is becoming ever greater in this era of diversification.
We insist on greater access to government, to the courts and to corporate board rooms. But too many of us apply a double standard when inquiries are made into the probity of our own actions. The common dismissal of such inquiries is that "we stand by our story" or "no comment" -- a response we would not accept from others.
Too many of us turn critical reporters away from our doors, while objecting strongly to the expulsion of our own reporters from the courts or sessions of government.
We cannot have it both ways -- pleading our rights under the First Amendment while opting to remain silent under the Fifth. We exempt ourselves from accountability while demanding it of others.
We hold too much power for that. I would think that the media are the strongest influences in the communities they serve -- and, in the case of newspapers, the increasing number of monopoly situations requires greater accountability from us.
In the more than 1,500 cities in this country with daily newspapers, fewer than 50 have two or more under competing ownership. The 10 largest newspaper chains, including the one I represent, have one-third of the nation's total readership -- 20 out of 60 million. And the influence of the three major networks may be even more pervasive.
We are entirely right when we expose conflicts of interest in government, when we challenge secrecy in the courts, when we reveal the often negative impact of corporate decisions.
But until we are as open as we expect others to be, the public will continue to regard us as one powerful institution doing battle with other powerful institutions -- and also as having a dubious advantage because of our unique constitutional protections.
And, that being the case, we can also expect the assaults on our rights and our credibility to continue.
But despite the decline in confidence in our own profession, the public still ranks us a notch above most of our critics and detractors in government and elsewhere. The people -- the ultimate beneficiaries of a free press -- still look to us as the guarantor of their right to know.
But if Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of the press, the public also expects us to adhere to standards that are worthy of that freedom.