Gould Hits Media Hard
Text of remarks by Loyal Gould, Fred Hartman Professor Emeritus of Journalism at Baylor University, to the Office of International Criminal Justice Millennium Seminar at Sam Houston State University on June 20, 2000.
At Criminal Justice Millennium Seminar
Dan Rather is one of America's most respected journalists. The CBS anchorman is a product of the university on whose campus we find ourselves today. He and his generation of students at Sam Houston State University had the good fortune of sitting at the feet of a remarkable teacher of journalism, Professor Hugh Cunningham, who instilled into his students the concept of public journalism as a public trust.
And it is that concept that with too few exceptions has been forgotten by the owners of the American press. And by the American press, I mean not only newspapers and magazines, but also television and radio.
The notion of a public trust has been supplanted by the endless pursuit by publishers and broadcasters of ever-increasing profits, by a hunger for ever-rising ratings and readership at whatever cost to society.
Thus, we see in both our television programming and in the content of our newspapers a plunge to "down market," in other words an emphasis on everything that is presumed to be what the public wants and not what the public needs.
Instead of traditional news about politics, government, diplomacy and business we get inundated with what is being called "infotainment," in other words stories centering on sex, celebrity, violence, cuteness, and on what are known as "lifestyle" stories.
A few years ago, as the real interest in crime became a matter of genuine public and political concern, television increased and dramatized its crime coverage--the bloodier and more shocking the better. This rapidly increasing emphasis on crime became an integral part of infotainment and contributed greatly to the current public misperception of crime in America.
By this, I mean even as crime statistics fall, the public is even more convinced that the country is being drowned in a tidal wave of criminal activity. In fact, crime in America is not out of control.
Its incidence remains too high, but evidence demonstrates that reported crime rates are declining. The number of serious crimes reported to police in 1997 dropped for a sixth consecutive year nationally. Murder in big cities and in suburban counties declined by more than 10 percent and by 9 percent nationally.
But often sensational--and frequently misleading reporting--bears much of the responsibility for irrational public attitudes that murder, rape, robbery and muggings rage out of control by a criminal justice system believed to be soft on criminals.
And by contributing to public anxiety these reports add ammunition to politicians' love for measures to ease the fear of crime through tougher prisons and longer sentences--remedies that go into play after the fact of crime. Such measures, if they do succeed in calming fear, may also lessen pressures for action that might more effectively diminish the incidence of crime.
Forgotten in this climate--created to a large extent by major American news organizations--are serious essays on, say, Social Security reform or the pathologies of the older, inner cities. Such essays are considered too dull.
A new breed of consultants was brought into news organizations to instruct how to make profit centers of their news broadcasts by not focusing on what the consultants called "serious" or "dull" reporting but by "lightening up" the newscast, frequently with what is called "happy" talk between a carefully coiffured female anchor and her equally well-groomed and handsome male counterpart.
And with the consultants came a new type of non-journalist network owner with the takeover of NBC by General Electric, CBS by the real estate magnet Laurence Tisch, and ABC by the Disney Corporation. The rival Fox Network was created by Rupert Murdoch--the publisher whose journalistic background has never satiated his thirst for profit.
Their all-consuming interest in profits means great attention centered on costs that must be reduced if profits are to be increased. Thus, networks have drastically reduced the costs of expensive worldwide teams of correspondents they put together in the better days of broadcast journalism.
In line with this, CBS and NBC have shown the door to Carl Stern and Fred Graham, both holding law degrees. They long gave their respective networks intelligent reports of the Supreme Court and of criminal justice--coverage now given, if at all, by reporters far less familiar with the subject. Unlike Rather, the new breed did not learn the justice beat by first reporting the police of big and small towns.
The end of the Cold War contributed to the ever greater inclusion of so-called soft news by depriving both television and newspapers of a steady, dependable source of often frightening headlines and by creating an enormous cavity in the portfolios of editors. But that hole has been filled with infotainment, including, of course, that equally steady, dependable and often scary topic--crime, the bloodier the better.
And the successful television anchor people regaling us with their infotainment are no longer products of journalism schools as Dan Rather was but of departments of theater such as Yale University's and Brigham Young's drama departments or they wear the old school ties of elite private universities.
These are the men and women with pretty faces, stylized hair and anointed voices. They are the high income stars who all too often demand the adulation the public bestows on film stars.
Like film stars they live in upscale neighborhoods, ride in chauffeur-driven limousines and eat in exclusive restaurants. Unlike their colleagues of a bygone day, they find it difficult to write a four-paragraph report with a beginning, a middle and an end and consider it beneath their dignity to speak with police officers.
I can well remember newsrooms of the not too distant past that were blue-collar city rooms, full of people from the working class, reporters whose favored beverage was beer and not expensive single-malt Scotch. Some college graduates, but not many were on the decidedly non-elitist staffs of those days. But that soon changed because of the fame garnered by Woodward and Bernstein in the Watergate scandal, fame that made journalism more appealing to young people.
In short, the newcomers to the ranks of the Fourth Estate are frequently so far removed from Mr. & Mrs. Average American they cannot even begin to understand the pathology of poverty, of discrimination or of any of the vast array of other problems the majority of us face on a daily basis.
Not too many years ago, journalism was not greatly sought as a career--certainly not by anyone who valued wealth. The pay was poor and working conditions were not always the greatest. Journalists seldom lived in big houses or apartments but usually in modest, frequently working-class neighborhoods.
Many of their neighbors were potential targets of the criminal justice system. For that reason, journalists frequently often developed a more than casual interest in how that system treated their neighbors. Criminal justice was not an abstract matter but an intense reality heightened by an interest in familiar human beings, an interest that may have diminished not only with rising affluence but with a shift of the criminal justice focus to black Americans--relatively few of whom worked in newsrooms until recent years.
Something else that disappeared was a conviction that first-rate journalism comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable.
Today, American journalists have enshrined what the demographers call the "soccer moms" and the wired workers and fail to understand that the vast majority of Americans belong to the working class, that more than three-quarters of American adults lack four-year college degrees, that more than seven-tenths do not hold professional or managerial jobs, that the medium income of American households is actually quite modest--about $39,000--and that their economic position in American society bears little resemblance to that of the suburban college-educated professionals we hear so much about.
And if the truth were told these average Americans desperately need much more information to quiet their fears of crime waves and to know how the many aspects of their various levels of American government work.
I sometimes think that although he doesn't necessarily articulate it, the average American instinctually knows my favorite clichÈ, namely what you don't know can kill you, and that if you have even a modicum of information, you might cope and thus survive.
Instead of bearing this in mind regarding their fellow Americans in whom they have little interest, the new breed of American journalists sensationalize and dramatize crime in broadcast's never-ending attempt to win viewers and profits.
The Rocky Mountain Media Watch, a highly respected television watchdog in Denver, Colorado, reported that on March 11, 1998, only 41.3 percent of 102 local TV news broadcasts actually were devoted to news--of which 26.9 percent concerned murder--one of the least committed major crimes.
Media Watch also reported that 74 of the stations surveyed had at least one murder story with especially brutal or bizarre murders prominently featured even if they transpired outside the station's viewing area.
At the same time, the Center for Media and Public Affairs reported that in April, 1998, the murder rate had fallen by 20 per cent since 1990--but the number of murder stories on network newscasts rose in the same years 600 per cent--from a total of 80 on NBC, CBS and ABC in 1990 to 486 in 1997. And that doesn't include the many broadcasts of or about the O. J. Simpson trial.
In 1997, Attorney General Janet Reno announced a remarkable drop in the crime rate. But stories on television and in newspapers often seemed like sober economic news heavy on statistics. They appeared under restrained headlines, on inside pages or toward the end of broadcasts. Such low-key coverage tended to underplay news far more important than any single crime.
Thus, the media's sheer emphasis on crime and violence is most responsible for frightening the public and within newspapers and broadcasts imbalances, errors, oversights and uninformed statements appear with ever greater frequency. Many of us who are friends of the press fear that guarantees of the First Amendment are neither being earned nor effectively utilized by the press.
In an earlier period we saw how lazy reporting caused the American public to believe there was a Communist lurking behind every tree, a Red subversive determined to destroy American Democracy. I refer, of course, to the late Joe McCarthy, the Republican senator from Wisconsin, who would call various people--especially those working in Washington--Communists.
In those days, reporters believed that if a senator stated something publicly, that statement or those statements could be reported verbatim without checking their veracity. The American press thus repeated McCarthy's public accusations until the Associated Press put together a team of reporters who investigated each person the Senator called a Communist.
Among all those named by McCarthy as Communists working for the Federal government, very few ever had been a Communist. One woman, who cleaned State Department offices at night, did not even know what Communism meant.
Another area much discussed by the public, but not by the press, was the multifaceted investigation of President Clinton's activities by Kenneth Starr, the court-appointed independent counsel whose probing and leaks to the press sparked much discussion of the role of grand juries and of the conduct of the prosecutors who largely control them.
Many Americans may now know at least in theory that a grand jury--supposedly a protection for the public--actually proceeds in a manner strongly resembling a "star" chamber in which there is no judge to rule on the propriety of questioning, neither the public nor the press can attend, and witnesses are not allowed to have a lawyer present and can be compelled to answer questions that they feel may violate the Fifth Amendment's guarantee against self-incrimination.
Prosecutors in a grand jury control the agenda and the questions in a grand jury secret session and have no obligation to seek information helpful to the target of their investigation or to a witness who may become a target.
Yet prior to the sensational investigation of a popular two-term president by a controversial prosecutor, the press largely ignored jury issues which can impact on the lives of millions of Americans and certainly play a central role in the criminal justice system.
Can the press ethically accept and report leaks of grand jury information supposed by law to be secret? Should it not at least specify in some way the source of the leak--enough information about him or her to give the consumer of news some sense of the purpose and accuracy of the leaked information.
And during the investigation of President Clinton, we saw almost daily reporters relying on leaks--frequently from prosecutors--rather than digging for their own material. This, of course, raises the question whether someone making public an illicit leak of grand jury secrets is not at least sharing in the commission of a felony, if not committing the crime himself. More than a few of these leaks were wrong, but most of the journalists who reported the leaks failed to correct them.
At the same time, lazy reporting relies on legal documents, thus emphasizing formal indictments rather than oral denials, and on the "morgue"--files of clippings of earlier stories or on electronic databases which too often simply repeat earlier mistakes because once in the morgue or in electronic and uncorrected, the same error may turn up in stories months or even years later.
Perhaps the most reprehensive staple of local television crime reporting is when the accused--usually a black man--is shown being shoved handcuffed into a police car at the floodlighted scene of a crime. A later finding of innocence is seldom reported.
At other times, the press fails to point out the dangers to civil liberties inherent in some police activities such as New York Mayor Giulianli's approval for police checkpoints that stopped hundreds if not ultimately thousands of motorists for hours. Are such harassing checks of often innocent citizens permissible in a democratic society?
The Constitution promises a fair trial. But that promise cannot be left entirely to the courts to honor. It is a demonstrable historical fact that courts at every level have shown themselves vulnerable to prejudice and even pressure.
How else can you explain the serious racial inequity involved in the growing prison population? A Bureau of Justice Statistics study reported that the incarceration rate for black men in 1996 was 3,096 per 100,000--eight times the rate for white males which was 370 per 100,000 and more than double the rate for Hispanics.
Not even the most convinced racist could believe that blacks are that much more criminally inclined that whites, especially when they are only 12 percent of the national population.
Of young black men aged 23 to 29, 8.3 percent were in prison compared with only 0.8 (eight) tenths per cent of white men in that same age group.
Norval Morris, the criminologist and former head of the University of Chicago Law School, has said:
"The larger and tougher prisons and jails in the United States give the impression of institutions for segregating the young black and Hispanic male underclass from society."
This is a form of American Apartheid, something many of us thought we never would import from the bad old days of the Republic of South Africa.
It can only be explained as resulting from latent or active racism in the criminal justice system, especially among the police, and encourages get tough policies that inevitably fall hardest on those with the least social and economic advantages.
And that can only be explained by recognizing that few newspapers or broadcasters take notice or publicize this unfair result, this evil result of the country's imprisonment policy even though most are eager to give viewers and readers graphic details of individual crimes--IF IT BLEEDS, IT LEADS.
And here comes the Internet as a news medium and it's bound to change the news business more drastically and unfortunately dramatically than anything we have yet seen. It certainly will be an even more dynamic force within the next few years.
For a start, internet news is not edited or controlled and that makes newspapers and television appear to be highly disciplined. In addition, the Internet has destroyed the morning and evening news cycles we once knew just as television killed off afternoon dailies. The most important point is that the Internet is available worldwide to anyone with a computer and a modem.
Thus, we no longer will be able to say that freedom of the press is for the rich who own a press. In the Internet's future, you won't need oceans of ink, tons and tons of newsprint or expensive television cameras and broadcast equipment and certainly not a staff of highly trained and ethical reporters and editors for you to spread ideology, gossip, propaganda, scare stories, lies or whatever you decide to call "news."
That's a future where nobody will believe that a public journal is a public trust.
As my late father frequently told me when something bothered me as a small boy: "Don't cry. The worst is yet to come."
Thank you for listening.
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SHSU Media Contact: Frank Krystyniak
June 20, 2000
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