Humility, as Arthur Godfrey once said, is good for the soul.
In that spirit, we herewith don sackcloth and ashes for this Sunday morning's sermon. The subject is the press, and the theme comes from a remark by one of the adornments of our craft, Charles Kuralt of CBS.
"In the end, the greatest threat to the press may not come from an all-powerful government wishing to bend the truth to its purposes," Kuralt said in a recent speech. "The greatest threat may come from within, from weak or greedy or distracted executives of news organizations who have lost the ancient faith, or who never had it. This is an insidious threat, one the public cannot guard against."
Kuralt was speaking about broadcast journalism, especially TV news departments, but his larger point about problems of the press applies to newspapers as well these days. Not since the Nixon-Agnew days of national news media baiting nearly a decade ago has the press come in for such a lambasting as of late and, as in Kuralt's case, some of the harshest criticism of press performance comes from within.
In successive weeks the nation's newspaper publishers and editors held their separate annual meetings. Each group heard searing indictments about how well their business meets their public obligations.
From Kurt M. Luedtke, formerly a Detroit editor who wrote the screenplay for "Absence of Malice," a movie critical of the press, speaking before the newspaper publishers in San Francisco:
"On your discretionary judgments hang reputations and careers, jail sentences and stock prices, Broadway shows and water rates. You are the mechanism of reward and punishment, the arbiter of right and wrong, the roving eye of daily judgment. You no longer shape public opinion, you have supplanted it. There are good men and women who will not stand for office, concerned that you will find their flaws or invent them. Many people who have dealt with you wish they had not. You are capricious and unpredictable, you are fearsome and you are feared because there is never any way to know whether this time you will be fair and accurate or you will not. And there is virtually nothing that we can do about it."
From Michael J. O'Neill, editor of The New York Daily News, the largest general circulation daily paper, speaking before the editors in Chicago:
"While there has been an astonishing growth in the power of the media over the last decade or so, I am by no means sure we are using it wisely. The tendency has been to revel in the power and wield it freely, rather than to accept any corresponding increase in responsibility.
"The extraordinary powers of the media, most convincingly displayed by network TV and the national press, have been mobilized to influence major public issues and national elections, to help diffuse the authority of Congress and to disassemble the political parties, even to make presidents or to break them. Indeed, the media now weigh so heavily in the scales of power that some political scientists fear we are upsetting the checks and balances invented by our forefathers."
There was much more about the press' arrogance, mediocrity, questionable standards, zealousness in the guise of investigative reporting, and its penchant to let the lure of sensational headlines prevail "over fairness, balance and a valid public purpose."
All this came after Kuralt, with his customary felicitousness of style and sharpness of point, had devastatingly criticized TV news.
"There has arisen a breed of managers which feels a greater responsibility to the bottom line than to the public good," he said. "This may be acceptable, if reprehensible, in a company which provides the nation with dog food or blue jeans or ice boxes. In a company which provides the nation with the news it depends on for survival, it is vandalistic.
"Many of the television stations to which Americans turn increasingly for information . . . give information only about the bloody auto wreck or the spectacular fire. Worse . . . in what they think of as 'in-depth' reporting, they give currency to the empty statements of politicians handed out at events which could not take place at all if politicians could not count on the 'instant cam' or the 'Eyewitness News Team' being there. This is all summarized by young men and women known as 'anchors'. . . most of whom, as I once said, cannot think, cannot write, do not know their communities and would not recognize a news story if it jumped up and messed their coiffures."
Kuralt, too, said much more worth pondering. He was bitingly scornful of what he called the networks' "unseemly emphasis on image and flash, and the tricks of electronics as substitutes for the hard facts arrived at by hard work." He denounced the idea of "quick news," the razzmatazz hyped-up rat-a-tat presentation now so familiar in telecasts across the country, and "preached by the shabby news consultants who peddle their bad advice to small television stations." (They do the same for newspapers.)
But you get the point.
If you're in the news business, you don't have to be a masochist to acknowledge the validity of many of these in-house accusations leveled against your trade. Nor do you have to agree with them all. But only a fool would dismiss them.
They are similar to complaints I have been hearing about the press from citizens recently in various places around the country.
By curious coincidence, all these criticisms come just as the need for a vigorous, informative news media seems greater than ever. Perhaps it's not so coincidental after all.
All around us we see daily evidence of events appearing out of control. Economic assumptions and theories prove disastrously wrong. Instead of the boom we were supposed to be enjoying at home now, this spring brings the highest unemployment since World War II, with worse expected to come. Instead of stability, and hopes for a lessening of tensions abroad, we find war in such unlikely places as the Falklands bringing reminders of the difficulties of enforcing peace in an age of push-button electronic war.
Everything is complex and increasingly bound together. People feel troubled and uncertain, and for good reason. They know they will be affected by these events no matter how far away they occur. They know, all too well, how serious, if not grim, things have become. So, in part, they turn to the news media seeking better answers and more thoughtful guidance to what is happening.
Here the message for the media seems clear. They don't think they're getting them.
As a man in Norfolk told me recently, the press seems "caught up with the nonsense of personalities." We pay far more attention to petty events than serious ones, he went on. We treat major issues as though they are some sort of political game. We seem to view everything through the prism of politics, especially Washington politics. Thus, he said, we are not really prepared to report the impending problems confronting the country "and that very failure on part of the press heightens the dangers ahead for everybody."
That's too close for comfort, but, as the man said, perhaps wearing a hair shirt is good for the soul.