MEDIA CIRCUS: The State of the Media

Thursday, June 25, 1998

Should we be concerned that a handful of corporations now control the majority of national news outlets? Robert Zelnick, Media Fellow at the Hoover Institution, and James Risser, Professor at the Department of Communication, Director of John S. Knight Fellowship Program, and Director of the Graduate Program in Journalism, Stanford University, ask whether the press today is driven by the "public's right to know" or the pressure to beat the competition.

Recorded on Thursday, June 25, 1998

ROBINSON Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge. I'm Peter Robinson. Think of journalism years ago, and you're likely to picture just about this: a Walter Winchell type pounding away at his Royal typewriter while he chomps on his cigar. Print was king. The major source of news for the American people: the newspaper. Today, of course, the media has exploded. Radio, television, the Internet. A story can break on a web site, get picked up on talk radio, get repeated on cable, and leave the evening news all hours before your old daily newspaper hits your front porch. With us today, two guests. Jim Risser is a Professor of Communications at Stanford University. Before coming to Stanford, Jim was a Pulitzer prize-winning newspaper reporter. Robert Zelnick is a veteran television reporter formerly of ABC News, now a Fellow at the Hoover Institution. Thank you, Annie. Robert and Jim both fear that today, the news is less often news than entertainment. So, has the hard-nosed reporter disappeared forever, replaced by a pretty face?


ROBINSON Contrast the coverage of Watergate with the coverage we're getting today of the Monica Lewinsky matter and now answer this question: Is American political journalism better today or worse than it was 25 years ago?

RISSER I think it's worse. I mean, I think a lot of the journalists are better educated and know more, but I think there's too much, oh, concentration on the frivolous and in covering scandals or investigative kinds of things. It seems to me there's too much rush to judgment and...

ROBINSON So things are going too fast and it's too frivolous?

RISSER I think so, yes.

ROBINSON Bob, better or worse?

ZELNICK I think in some ways, it's worse, but not in the ways that most people criticize. I think it's ...

ROBINSON A nuance dancer. All right, it what ways is it worse?

ZELNICK Well, I think it's worse because the priorities have shifted to the shock value of things and because the tremendous need to break new information when there's no new information to break, the continuing news cycle, so to speak. But I think when we talk about the Watergate period, we ought to remember that Watergate was a unique type of scandal. Watergate was a gross abuse of presidential power, some of which was broken by the great Woodward and Bernstein team of The Washington Post.

ROBINSON You're not saying that tongue-in-cheek? You do believe that in the journalistic pantheon, they are truly great?

ZELNICK Yes, I do, and certainly a great team in terms of covering Watergate and related abuses. But I went back and recently had occasion to review what it is that Woodward and Bernstein broke and what it is that came out because of what certain defendants had to say and what Judge Sirica brought out through his very tough sentencing, and I think Woodward and Bernstein will be eternally credited with starting this massive rock moving down the mountain, but they were not the only people in the landslide.

ROBINSON Here, Jim, listen to this recent quotation from Bob Woodward: "The big difference between the Monica Lewinsky scandal and Watergate is that in Watergate, Carl (Carl Bernstein) and I went out and talked to people whom the prosecutors were ignoring or didn't know about. Here (that is, in the Monica Lewinsky matter), the reporting is all about lawyers telling reporters what to believe and write." Is that true?

RISSER That squares with what I've seen of the reporting of it. Now, plus, I think there's a lot of reporting of things that have been reported elsewhere without the usual kinds of checks and balances of going and investigating it themselves, trying to confirm it. There's been an awful lot of anonymous source reporting as there was in Watergate, but that was done... you know, Woodward and Bernstein say that they developed this method of confirming everything with at least two sources, and so on. That kind of thing seems to have slipped away.

ROBINSON Let me pause and sum up here. You've both been in journalism some thirty years. You both agree that American political journalism today is worse, more frivolous, less well- sourced, moving more quickly and more sloppily than it did, than it was, twenty-five years ago. Now let me ask you this: Why? Why has this changed? Why do we see this decay or this debasement of journalism?

RISSER Well, I can think of a couple of things. One, I think, is the constant news cycle which drives ... you always have to have something new, and everybody is watching CNN or other ....

ROBINSON So journalists today feel pressure - constant pressure - from the twenty-four hour news cycle. How were things different during the Watergate era?


ROBINSON Tell me what it was like from your own experience in the old days, by which I mean, again, let's just use it as a convenient mark, Watergate twenty-five years ago. You had the three big networks were on in the evening and the morning paper came out, and so you had two moments when news was going to hit the public each day. Is that right, roughly speaking?

ZELNICK I think roughly. Of course, there was, you know, the wire services and some of the papers came out in the afternoon, but the influential cycle was twice a day.

ROBINSON As a professional matter, for you as a reporter, you in television and you in print, there was time to source stories, time for reporters to take a breather, time for perspective. Is that the point you're making?

RISSER Absolutely. Plus, it seems to me at that time there were editors who were more likely to put the brakes on and say "Wait a minute, do we really have this pinned down before we go ahead with it?" There wasn't quite this pressure to get it done now and get it in the next edition or on the next newscast.

ZELNICK I think in the main the great news organizations of the sixties and seventies is still great today. I think the big change since the early 1970s is the fundamental change in network news operations. In the early 1970s, the network news operations were essentially lost leaders. They were in there as part of the television networks' sense of public responsibility and more than a sense, it was something their licensees had to establish when they sought to renew their licenses. You've had television going from news operations from a lost leader to massive generators of income which means they've shifted from the evening news to prime time magazine shows to audience mass ratings contestants, and I think the nature of the product has changed dramatically because of that.

RISSER Isn't that one of the reasons why the news on television, so much of it, seems to be based so much more on entertainment values than it used to?

ZELNICK I don't think there's any question about it, Jim. I think that's true, and I think that it's been infectious, the prime time infotainment has influenced to some extent the coverage of your more solid news programs, your evening news, some of your morning news programs. I think there's been a general dumbing down of television programming. "Hard Copy" wasn't in existence then. Some of your other Jerry Springer-type shows that pass for some kind of public affairs were not in existence then. I think all of this has proved contagious to the news departments. Now, you know, again, there are a lot of solid journalists around.


RISSER And you see, it's very clear that this has had an impact on print journalism, too, because I mean, newspapers are just kidding themselves if they say they're not driven by things that happen on television ‘cause they are, that's become more clear as....

ROBINSON Is that a difference? When you started at The Des Moines Register some thirty years ago, wasn't it a for-profit organization? Didn't that newspaper have to turn a profit for the family that owned it?

RISSER Yeah, sure. Of course it did, but I don't see that it drove decisions in the same way that Bob's talking about in connection with television.

ROBINSON All right, so the marketplace has changed....

ROBINSON But the very profitability of news organizations today suggests they're selling news the public wants to buy. What's wrong with that?


ROBINSON The marketplace has changed and the news organizations are responding accordingly. You guys actually feel some sorrow or anger or disappointment about this.

ZELNICK I'm very slow to anger, but ...

ROBINSON Very slow to anger? Quick to sorrow, however?

ZELNICK That's right. But I agree with you in this sense, that they are responding to market forces. I don't wake up in the morning furious at Coca-Cola because they produce a sugary beverage which if you swish to excess is bad for your teeth ...


ZELNICK ...and I think that the discipline that has to be exerted on the market has to be exerted by individuals who care about news. They have to seek out the better programmings, they have to seek out the more erudite coverage, and that's the only type of noise that has any resonance in the rooms where decisions are made.

ROBINSON You used to work for ABC. ABC is now owned by Disney. Is Michael Eisner, the Chairman of Disney, the Chief Executive Office of Disney, well-equipped to seek out serious news?

ZELNICK I don't think he's well-equipped to do it, and I'm not one hundred percent sure he does it on a daily basis, but I think ...

ROBINSON Is that a bad thing, that Disney owns ABC?

ZELNICK I thinks it's a complex thing which in ...

ROBINSON You're not happy about it.

ZELNICK ... at the end of the day, I'm not delighted with it, no.


ZELNICK But again, I go back to the day when Leonard Guldenson, one man, owned ABC and used to make donations to charity in the names of his correspondents and producers. It was that sort of intimate family.

ROBINSON Or Bill Paley at CBS.


ROBINSON CBS News was a prestigious, well-run organization even though it was explicit in his mind that it was going to lose money year after year.

ZELNICK Yeah, but why would you expect that today in one little element of the economy and in none of the other elements of the economy?

ROBINSON Well, but, now let's pursue this Leonard Goldenson and Bill Paley versus, for example, Rupert Murdoch. Rupert Murdoch started out in print. He loves print. His newspapers, from everything one reads, are his prize possessions, and yet he's moved into entertainment, Fox News, "Hard Copy", "Current Affair", actually, with the first kind of gritty reality television. That's a Fox product, and so here we have a man who loves newspapers, loves news, and yet his empire moves more and more and more toward entertainment. Is that a fair comment on...

ZELNICK He loves tabloid news.

ROBINSON He loves tabloid news. Yeah.

ZELNICK He doesn't love The New York Times. He doesn't love The Des Moines Register.

RISSER He was always sort of a down market kind of newspaper guy, I think, before he got into...

ZELNICK Sure. Absolutely.

RISSER ...television.

ROBINSON And in the current competitive conditions it's a down market kind of guy who can succeed.

RISSER Well, it sort of looks that way. I would like to think that that's not true.


RISSER And certainly as Bob said, some of the great print organizations, New York Times and others, are still doing very well and staying at a fairly high level.

ROBINSON Let me ask you...

ROBINSON The great news organizations are still great. Well, that's reassuring, but why do stories that appear to merit more coverage wither and die while other stories, scandal stories, go on and on and on?


ROBINSON How does a story reach the threshold to be a story? Little case study for you: the so-called Filegate matter in which some 900 FBI files on members of the Reagan and Bush administration found their way wrongly into the Clinton White House, and that story burbled along for a couple of months. The Clinton White House simply said it was a bureaucratic error, and then the story died. We still don't know who at the FBI signed off on the transfer to the White House, we don't know what the White House used those files for. It seems to me that that's a story that represents ... that is a direct abuse of power, if in fact there was an ill intention and that's a story that the press let die.

ZELNICK I think almost all of us were sensitive to the fact that that was potentially a Watergate-type abuse of presidential power, and I think that the press has, through its contacts and sources in the Independent Counsel's office and elsewhere, decided that it cannot yet be reported that this was a conscious deliberate abuse of presidential power or of executive branch power.

ROBINSON So what you're telling me is that the press has actually pursued this story. They've done a good job of pursuing this story. They've talked to people, they've gotten the winks and the nods from Ken Starr's office, and it's just not a story.

ZELNICK I can say personally that I was still with ABC News at the time this story broke, and I personally tried to pursue it as far as it could go and I ran into the tracks of colleagues who were doing the same thing, and I think there came a point when we hit pretty much of a wall in the case. Now...

ROBINSON And the wall was simply a refusal of people to give you information?

ZELNICK No. It was ... the wall was simply guidance that there was no proof to this point of senior executive branch involvement in the intent to obtain private information on others. Now, again, we're skeptical, I remain skeptical to this day, but there comes a point at which you simply can't repeat the news, repeat the news, repeat the news without advancing past that.

ROBINSON So in Filegate, the press did its job?

ZELNICK I think so.

ROBINSON You did your job.

ZELNICK I tried my best.


RISSER But Filegate didn't involve sex and interesting personalities which I think is one of the differences and once you get to a certain stage in a story like that, if you can't carry it further, can't prove more, editors, producers, whoever, are going to get tired of it and it's going to fade.

ROBINSON Woodward and Bernstein. You said a moment ago Woodward and Bernstein developed a very scrupulous method for double-sourcing each of their items and has the current condition, the current marketplace, squeezed that sourcing ... is there pressure to do less and less sourcing now?

RISSER I think there is. I mean, I don't think that's a good enough excuse for the press to give for its behavior, but I think it is one of the reasons it is done. Now when you see, for example, even a paper like the New York Times having their main story one day attributed to an associate of Monica Lewinsky. What does that mean? I mean, what ... how do I judge the credibility of such a source?

ROBINSON So sourcing is one specific area where standards are slipping, and you can see them slipping.

ROBINSON Pressure to get the story out faster - that means pressure to do less sourcing. Let's see how that might affect the coverage of a breaking story.


ROBINSON You're an editor. Drudge has a report on his Internet site in the morning. It's a sensational report. There's a sense in which you have some responsibility to your readers at The Des Moines Register ... let's put you right back in Des Moines ... some responsibility to let them know that this sensational fact is being reported. What do you do? What do you ... how to you handle it?

RISSER Well, the old method would have been, if it was something really sensational and you need to get it, you'd say: Let's confirm this somewhere else with some other sources before we print it, and if we can ...

ROBINSON So if you can't confirm an ....

RISSER ...but that gets harder and harder to do in an age when you know what people are watching Drudge or CNN or whatever and if you don't go with it, you don't have quite the luxury to hold off for a news cycle or a day's ...

ROBINSON Is that standard unrealistic?

ZELNICK No, I don't think it's unrealistic. I think there's really a two-pronged test. The first is try to confirm it on your own, in which case you can report it as your own story and as your correspondent has developed it. Second of all, if you can't confirm it, and, but can't deny it, haven't disproved it, then I think it's perfectly appropriate if the original source has a good national reputation. I think there's a distinction between The New York Times and Drudge.

ROBINSON And Drudge doesn't make the cut?

ZELNICK No. I don't think he makes the cut.

ROBINSON Does he make the cut?

RISSER Not yet.


ZELNICK No. Let me mention something else because I think we can wallow in the press coverage of the Lewinsky scandal, but we've had a situation where CNN and Time magazine have reported that the CIA or that American military used nerve gas in Laos trying to kill American defectors during the Viet Nam War.

ROBINSON Americans who were going to the other side.

ZELNICK Yes, exactly, and as someone who covered national security for many years...

ROBINSON You were in Viet Nam and your beat was the Pentagon.

ZELNICK Viet Nam, covered Moscow, covered Israel and spent seven-and-a-half years covering the Pentagon. I have seen time after time with big national security stories were egregiously misreported. I'm talking about the Iraqgate scandal, I'm talking about an ABC news report in the early 1980s that the CIA had hired trained killers to go into Laos and kill surviving American POWs because they were a political embarrassment. That was a Gary Shepherd report that went on World News Tonight. It was totally false - never retracted...

ROBINSON And ABC did not retract it?

ZELNICK ABC was moved eventually to say they are reassessing the story, but to this day, lo these many years later, has never indicated the results of their reassessment.

ROBINSON Let me ask you this. As a reporter in the field, you see Time and CNN come out with this story. Your every instinct based on everything you know is that it's wrong. Do you simply defer to them as fellow journalists or is there any incentive to get out there and show that they were wrong?

ZELNICK Well, I don't defer to them as fellow journalists but where appropriate and where I'm asked to match the story, I indicate that the weight of the evidence is running in the other direction. Now, I've done that ...

ROBINSON Is that a story?

ZELNICK I ... Well, I think that once you start to have denials from senior Pentagon officials, once you start to have statements and possibly hearings by the Congress, I do think it is a story, and ...

ROBINSON So what I'm saying is ....

ROBINSON Reporting on the falsehood of a story may be important, but it's not very exciting. Should the priority be on what he thinks the public needs to know or what he thinks it wants to know?


ROBINSON Listen to a few figures. On the first day of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, MSNBC's ratings went up 131%. During the first week, CNN's ratings went up 40%, USA Today printed 20% more copies for its weekend edition, Time magazine added 100,000 copies to its usual newsstand distribution. Who's to blame? The market? People like to read about this stuff. It sells. What I'm trying to get at here is sort of the matter of underlying principle. Should editors, reporters be covering news which they as professionals judge to be important? It's not so much a question of the public's right to know as the public ought to know and should that be the overriding principle for the way the editor makes up the front page of The Des Moines Register every morning or the producer puts together the evening broadcast of the ABC News, or should it be: What the heck, it's a marketplace, we're in a competitive economic environment, we run with what we believe will sell. Which?

RISSER If you have to make a choice between one or the other, I'd say the first one - what they think in their professional judgment is news and ought to be there. I don't think usually ...

ROBINSON So you thrive on sort of a priestly notion of journalism.

RISSER No, because, I was just going to say I don't think you're really faced with that black or white kind of choice. It's a mix of both. You put things out there that you think people need to know about. You also put things out there that people want to read. That's ... any newspaper or any newscast is kind of a smorgasbord of different kinds of things.

ZELNICK I agree with that, and I think you're also dealing with two different types of decisions. Decision number one is made in the absence of breaking news. It's, you know, what should we put in our paper, what types of things should we put on our evening news, that the public cares about and that fits the definition of news, and I think that concept has changed with the end of the Cold War, with the interest of Americans in health and lifestyle choices and relationships, and things like that. It may have gone too far, but I understand how ...

ROBINSON It's fundamentally legit.

ZELNICK ...I understand how that decision process comes to be made. The second thing is you have a breaking story like the Lewinsky scandal. Do we beat it to death to hype our ratings? And that I think is irresponsible journalism. And I think at the end of the day, and maybe it's an act of faith on my part, I think at the end of the day those news organizations which maintain their professionalism in the face of market pressures and collegial pressures and others are going to be rewarded and I think they're going to do well and I think ...

ROBINSON Economically?

ZELNICK Economically. The Washington Post is one of the great cash cows of the industry. The New York Times makes a ton of money, and they're both very good responsible world-class papers, and I think at the end of the day I'd like to see one of the television networks take that kind of gamble.

ROBINSON We've been talking about the importance...


ROBINSON: On the one hand, serious responsible news; on the other, fun, titillating tabloid news. But isn't the public smart enough to tell the difference?

ROBINSON Here's a good case: Rupert Murdoch in England, he owns the Star, which is a tabloid newspaper and as a matter of fact the famous Page Three Girl (he runs a different naked lady in the Star every single morning), he also owns the Times of London. In his own mind, he's able to make a distinction; readers are able to make a distinction. I have lots of friends in England who pick up both newspapers every morning. One is for news, the other is for fun. So, but the general point: we don't have to worry about it really.

RISSER Well, I hope you're right, but I'm not sure that all readers are readers that sophisticated to make the distinction. Maybe they are. I don't know, but the other... the thing that worries me more is that there are quite a number of surveys and studies that show that Americans are less interested in government, politics and public affairs than they were in the past, including the recent past - the seventies and sixties. Now I'm very worried about that because I think it's leading people to not be involved citizens and I think journalism can't just say: People don't care anymore, therefore we're not going to cover; we're going to tailor our coverage entirely to what the people's perceived interests are. I think journalism's got to set some standards.

ROBINSON Last question: The Lewinsky scandal has not only led to a lot of reporting about Lewinsky, but to a lot of conversations like this one in which reporters talk about themselves, which reporters love to do. Will the Lewinsky scandal lead to an improvement in the standards of journalism a further debasement in the standards of journalism, or will it just make no darn difference at all? Better, worse, or the same? Jim?

RISSER I'm an optimist. I think better. I think there's going to be a re-examination of the way we do things.


ZELNICK I think there may be some improvements at the margins, but I think the shape of journalism today is a product of the times, it's a product of the market, it's a product of recent experience as to what sells, what makes money. My concern to get back to your point is not that The National Enquirer is going to be The National Enquirer; my concern is that ABC News be ABC News and that The New York Times be The New York Times, and that's where I think the key is.

ROBINSON Bob Zelnick, Jim Risser, thank you very much.


RISSER Thank you.

ROBINSON: Muck-raking: scandal, titillation. There have been days recently when The New York Times motto, "All the news that's fit to print", has sounded merely quaint. An informed citizenry: is that a notion that is becoming merely quaint or, with all the new media outlets, especially the Internet, are the American people becoming better informed than ever before? I'm Peter Robinson. Thanks for joining us.

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