Going Public  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   April 1997

Going Public   

The idea of reviving news councils to evaluate citizen complaints about news coverage is arousing new interest. Will this help bolster sagging credibility? Or is it a dangerous intrusion into the workings of news organizations?

By Alicia C. Shepard
Alicia C. Shepard is a former AJR senior writer and NPR ombudsman.     



BY THE TIME GEN. WILLIAM C. WESTMORELAND withdrew his $120 million libel suit against CBS in 1985, days before it was to go to the jury, each side had spent serious money. Midway through the 18-week trial, CBS correspondent Mike Wallace, then 66, author of the 1982 Westmoreland documentary, was treated for exhaustion at a New York City hospital for nearly two weeks. Westmoreland, then 70, had spent nearly three years publicly defending himself against allegations that during the Vietnam War he had deliberately deceived his superiors by underestimating enemy troop strength.

The protracted legal battle took an emotional, physical and financial toll on all involved and ended without resolution. CBS offered neither money nor an apology to Westmoreland. The general never conceded the broadcast was accurate. "Now both Gen. Westmoreland and CBS believe that their respective positions have been effectively placed before the public for its consideration and that continuing the legal process at this stage would serve no further purpose," the combatants said in a joint statement.

Years later, Westmoreland would come to Minneapolis for a speaking engagement. By chance, he happened upon the Minnesota News Council, a nonprofit group set up 26 years ago by the state's newspaper association to provide readers and viewers an impartial forum for airing complaints against the Minnesota news media. "I know as well as any American that courts are no answer in trying to settle a dispute with the media," Westmoreland said in a public service announcement on behalf of the news council. "Here in Minnesota you have a better way." And for years, according to Gary Gilson, the news council's executive director, Westmoreland has sent the organization $100 "and a nice letter."

More than a decade after their epic courtroom clash Wallace says, "Westmoreland wasn't after money. He was after vindication. Had there been a well-established news council, I don't have the slightest doubt he would have taken it there. He felt he had no recourse but to go to court against us to try to vindicate himself."

At the time of the Westmoreland case, Wallace was as dogged in defending his piece as Westmoreland was in arguing that Wallace had "rattlesnaked" him. Yet today the veteran television journalist, now 78, is championing news councils as a forum for members of the public when they're the subject of a story they feel is unfair, untruthful or distorted. Wallace, king of the hard-edged journalists, asks why he and his colleagues shouldn't be subjected to the same scrutiny as the newsmakers they cover.

"What I'm suggesting is...reasonable, qualified people--in our profession and outside--sitting down and considering whether or not they perceive a given piece of reporting warrants holding it up to public scrutiny as flawed or skewed or distorted or--God forbid--dishonest," Wallace said in a speech last December 4. "And if it is, then vote on it and let the public in on it, let the media cover it, punish the malefactors by holding them up to public obloquy. God knows we do that to others."

For those who recall the way he bristled and chafed when Westmoreland dared to challenge his reporting, Wallace's born-again espousal of the need for media accountability is a shocker. But, shocking or not, his crusade has single-handedly placed news councils in the center of the debate over how journalism might strengthen its flagging credibility.

News councils are not a new idea. Wisconsin and Colorado tried them for a time. And from 1973 to 1984 there was a National News Council, which died from lack of money and media cooperation. Today, only Minnesota and Honolulu have forums where people can take their complaints when they feel they've been treated unfairly by the media.

"Frankly, [Wallace's interest] surprised me," says Ralph Otwell, former editor of the Chicago Sun-Times who also served on the National News Council. "The National News Council returned some findings that were very critical of '60 Minutes.' I characterize this as a sort of a deathbed conversion."

Wallace recognizes that his turnabout makes him vulnerable to some ribbing. But he seems to regard that as a small price to pay, given the stakes.

On February 26, Wallace helped bring together 15 representatives of the media and foundations, including the heads of NBC, CNN and CBS News as well as the editors of the Detroit News and the Louisville Courier-Journal, at the Ford Foundation in New York City. The group held a wide-ranging discussion about what can be done to improve the media's credibility. More accountability, they agreed, is the key. How to achieve it is the vexing question they've yet to resolve. While they discussed the possibility of reviving news councils, they reached no consensus.

"It really was a brainstorming session," says Jon Funabiki of the Ford Foundation, who ran the meeting. "Part of the impetus was sparked by Mike Wallace. He had a show on '60 Minutes' about the Minnesota News Council. I met with him and thought it was provocative. I was surprised someone would float the idea. I thought the news council idea was dead."

IT HAD BEEN DEAD, BURIED 13 YEARS ago with the sudden demise of the National News Council. Dead, that is, until Wallace raised the possibility of reviving it in a speech at Harvard University two years ago. The Minnesota News Council's Gilson heard about the speech and invited Wallace to be the featured speaker at the council's 25th anniversary bash. Wallace agreed.

Later, he and his "60 Minutes" crew flew back to Minneapolis for an October 18 Minnesota News Council hearing. At issue was a Northwest Airlines complaint against WCCO-TV, the local CBS affiliate, over a report aired last spring on the airline's safety record.

The momentum began to build when Wallace embraced the councils while giving the 19th annual Frank E. Gannett Lecture at the Freedom Forum's Media Studies Center in New York City last December. "All of us journalists are perfectly willing to call attention to profligate politicians, priests and potentates, but we show little enthusiasm when similar attention is focused on us," Wallace said. "Of course, there are ombudsmen who have sprung up here and there, thanks in no small part to the National News Council. And most of us now have guidelines or codes, or standards and practices manuals. But do we read them?"

Four days later CBS aired Wallace's "60 Minutes" piece on Minnesota's council. He ended it with this comment: "In the interest of full disclosure, you should know that I am a public supporter of state news councils, and I believe there should be a national news council, though many of my colleagues disagree with me." After the segment ran, the Minnesota News Council received inquiries from 22 states asking how to start such organizations. The response was so intense that the council's former director, Bob Shaw, was recruited to create a Web site with guidelines on forming a news council (www.mtn.org/newscouncil).

"There's been more publicity on this than there has been in 26 years," says Gilson. "Mike's certainly succeeded in getting the conversation going." One might attribute it to Wallace's stature in the news business, but as his friend Charles Eisendrath, director of the Michigan Journalism Fellows program at the University of Michigan, says, "Mike has said some things now and then that didn't have any resonance. Mike could not have done what he did if there hadn't been broad agreement that something needs to be done."

MORE THAN TWO DECADES AGO the National News Council was founded as a buffer between the news media and angry readers and viewers--something to fill the gap between heated letters to the editor and costly libel suits. It was intended to be a neutral place where questions of fairness and accuracy could be raised before a panel of eight journalists and 10 members of the public.

"The function [of the News Council] is very simple," council member Norman Isaacs told AJR (then WJR) in 1981. "It's a lightning rod. Anybody who has a bitch against the way journalism is behaving has a place to go."
It seemed like a good idea at the time, but it wasn't destined to go the distance. Born in 1973 with a $100,000 grant from the Twentieth Century Fund, the National News Council was created when the news media were under fire for their reporting on the Vietnam War and Watergate. Those bringing complaints before the council had to waive the right to file a suit. Staff members investigated the complaints, and the council held hearings on those it believed raised significant ethical issues.

Even in cases where it found against the media, the council didn't have the power to punish the offending news organization. It had only the power to embarrass.

Although many feared the council would be stacked against the media, that hardly turned out to be the case. When it went out of business in 1984, it had ruled against the media on only 82 of the 242 complaints it had accepted and investigated. And it only investigated a fifth of the complaints it received.

But the council never enjoyed the support of the journalism establishment. The Washington Post hated it. Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, then publisher of the New York Times, told AJR in 1981 that a news council "would encourage an atmosphere of regulations in which government intervention might gain public acceptance." Tom Winship, then editor of the Boston Globe, was more blunt: "They have no damn business meddling in our business."

Without the support of the major media, the National News Council didn't stand a chance. How could it succeed if a complaint were brought against the New York Times and the paper refused to cooperate or wouldn't publish the council's findings?

"Without the cooperation of both sides, it's sort of a star-chamber proceeding," says former news council member Otwell. "You never got the cooperation of the Times or the Post. Their reasons were outlandishly foolish. The refrain we heard from [former executive editors] Abe [Rosenthal] and Ben [Bradlee] was basically, 'This is the first step toward government control of the media.' That was something I never understood. How could a private organization without punitive powers lead to government control? The only weapon we had was publicity, and that was declawed when the New York Times and the Washington Post refused to carry stories about the council. We had no power to censure. All we could do was issue a finding of 'Naughty, naughty. Let's do better next time.' "

Many newspapers didn't publish stories on the council's findings, the number of complaints dropped, and funding slowly dried up.

The media were embattled in the 1970s, vilified by some for their reporting on the Vietnam War and Watergate, pounded by Spiro Agnew (using Bill Safire's words) as "nattering nabobs of negativism." But compared to today, journalists were heroes. Walter Cronkite, after all, was once the "most trusted man in America." Woodward and Bernstein had made the profession glamorous. Today poll after poll finds the public has little respect for and trust in journalists and news organizations.

"My feeling is we've not only seen the growth of hostility and cynicism toward the press in the last 25 years since the National News Council was founded," Otwell says, "we've seen an explosion of legal actions."

In fact, the National News Council may have failed because it wasn't essential at the time. "It was just a very different ball game," says Michigan's Eisendrath. "My own thinking is the previous national press council failed from a lack of need. But there's a crying need now."

The need may be there, but formidable opposition remains. The New York Times' Rosenthal (now a columnist), "60 Minutes" Executive Producer Don Hewitt and Cronkite remain wary. The critics want no part of anyone--especially people outside of the profession--looking over their shoulders and raising questions about a story without understanding what's involved in producing it. News councils have been called unconstitutional, ineffective and unnecessary. Critics fear council decisions that go against the media, if well-publicized, may cause news organizations to shrink from doing tough stories.

"I don't like any organized control over the press," says veteran broadcast journalist Marvin Kalb, now head of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University. "Supposing somebody decided after '60 Minutes' uses a hidden camera that they got a raw deal and brings it up to a news council and indicts Mike Wallace, who is a big supporter of hidden cameras. I wonder what Wallace would say. He may very well be very generous about it. But people are less generous when they are attacked."

Cronkite had appeared to soften on news councils when he spoke at a memorial service for Richard Salant, the highly regarded president of CBS News, in 1993. "In the 1970s, I thought it was the worst idea I ever heard in my life," Cronkite said. "That we should put judgment as to the kind of job we do in the hands of another, somewhere outside our profession, outside our immediate workplace. But I think now, as I look back at it, that Dick was probably right."

Today, Cronkite says he's again wavering on the concept. "Mike got a little overenthusiastic over my answer when we discussed taking this idea to the Ford Foundation," Cronkite told AJR. "If a proper formula could be devised to satisfy all my concerns, I'd feel it could be a good idea. But my concerns are quite deep. I am very much concerned regarding the foot in the door toward censorship. In agreeing that it's worth studying again, I really don't see it ending successfully in establishing a viable news council."

Cronkite is particularly concerned that regional, state or local councils "would lose the guarantee of impartiality. Once you establish this sort of thing, the selection of the panel is always going to be key to its impartiality and the selection can become political within the council."

Cronkite doesn't have to worry about anything happening soon. Those who met at the Ford Foundation tried to avoid specific talk of forming a new news council. (In fact, the term "news council" in some circles is considered as beyond the pale as calling women "girls," given the fate of the National News Council. Eisendrath prefers "Committee on Professional Standards.")

"One of the things we all agreed on was that, at this inchoate point, it's best not to talk about a news council because the first was not a happy experience," says Eisendrath, who attended the Ford meeting. "You say 'news council' and a small group of very influential people in our news business run the other way. Right now, the best thing our mission should be is to acknowledge publicly there is a problem and a big one. It's not a public relations problem. It's a professional standards problem."

In an effort to help solve it, the Freedom Forum has agreed to provide $1 million to study ways of improving media quality, fairness and credibility.

After the four-hour gathering at Ford Wallace told AJR, "This is the first of a series of meetings. Everybody, the skeptics and enthusiasts, came away engaged, interested and open-minded. I'm on record as favoring something of the nature of a news council, but I'm willing to listen."

THOSE INTRIGUED BY WALLACE'S NEW CAUSE are likely to take a close look at the Minnesota News Council. Started in 1971 by the Minnesota Newspaper Association, the council's main purpose is to promote media fairness by providing people a chance to hold news outlets accountable and to encourage discussion of journalistic ethics.

The council owes its success to the overwhelming--although not unanimous--support of the state's media. "You can't do a news council unless the media want to participate," says director Gilson, a veteran television reporter and documentary producer. "A lot of people make the mistake or conclude that this started as a citizens' movement, and they are out to get the media. It was started because the leader of the newspaper association thought that in order to maintain public trust, they had to invite the public into basic conversations about journalistic standards."

Its success depends heavily on the support of such news organizations as Minneapolis' Star-Tribune, the St. Paul Pioneer Press and WCCO-TV. Thirty percent of the council's $220,000 annual budget comes from media companies. Thirty percent comes from businesses such as General Mills and Cargill, 30 percent from local foundations and 10 percent from individuals like Westmoreland.

The council is comprised of 12 journalists and 12 members of the public, presided over by an associate justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court. It receives about 80 complaints a year, according to director Gilson, but holds hearings on only five to eight.

"The staff screens complaints to decide whether to hold a hearing," explains Gilson. "They don't decide on the merits. They just decide on whether we can get our hands around what the journalistic issue is. We are an advocate for press accountability. We are trying to help the public and the media understand and educate each other." For example, in the recent Northwest Airlines complaint, the council explored whether TV promos should be held to the same standards as news stories.

Only those who are the subject of a story can file complaints, unless the news organization under fire agrees to allow a third party to file one. This is significant because critics such as CBS' Don Hewitt fear advocacy groups, some of them extreme, will bring dubious complaints alleging unfairness because news organizations have not run stories on their pet issues.

In each case, complainants agree to waive the right to sue. They represent themselves before the council; no lawyers are involved. The council's decisions are often covered by the media.

"Some news people think 'accountability' is an awful word," says Gilson, "that you'll get strung up by the heels and dipped in burning oil. What it means is being held up to public scrutiny. The news business does that with everybody else. In 26 years, in half of the 115 public hearings, the news organizations made such a good accounting of their practices, they won the case."

Many believe the Minnesota News Council works because Minnesotans are especially civic-minded and open to trying new things. But clearly not all Minnesotans support or like (or even know about) the Minneapolis-based council. Neither the ABC nor NBC television affiliates in the Twin Cities participates. "Our management has always felt there shouldn't be another body interposed between us and our viewers," says Gary Hill, managing editor for KSTP-TV, the ABC affiliate. Gannett-owned KARE-TV, the NBC affiliate, stopped participating a few years ago when third parties were allowed to appear at hearings. Although third parties are no longer welcome unless a news organization agrees, the station still doesn't feel comfortable being judged by its direct competition.

"We have absolutely no objection to the airing of a public debate over a story," says KARE News Director Tom Lindner. "We support helping the public understand how the media work. We don't like the notion of taking a vote, especially since some of our competition are members of the council. That's been a sticking point for us." Currently, WCCO reporter Trish Van Pilsum is a council member.

Hill believes that sometimes the fact that his station doesn't participate is used against it. He cites as an example the station's recent request to Republican Gov. Arne Carlson for cellular phone records. Carlson refused, saying it was a gimmick to attract attention, noting in his response that the station won't participate in the news council.

"In essence," says Hill, who has been at the station for 22 years, the official used the station's nonparticipation "as a dodge to attack our credibility rather than responding to the public policy issue."

The most high-profile case the news council has handled involved the complaint last summer by Northwest Airlines against WCCO-TV. The station broadcast a three-part series last spring revealing new information on $725,000 in fines the Federal Aviation Administration had levied against Northwest for maintenance problems. Anchor Don Shelby told viewers Northwest "violated national safety standards and endangered the lives of passengers," and suggested the airline pressured mechanics to skimp on maintenance in an effort to maintain its on-time record.

A promo that aired before the series ran--and even before Shelby interviewed airline executives--showed a Northwest 747 flying across the screen, appearing to crash.

Northwest considered filing a lawsuit, says spokesperson Jon Austin. "But lawsuits against the media are hideously expensive and go on for years," he says. "And, at best, they end in a murky resolution. We wanted something immediate that would be a public resolution on the merits of CCO's story. The news council, bless its heart, provided that."

The council held a hearing in the wake of unsuccessful attempts to "settle" the dispute, says Gilson. The three-hour forum on October 18 was packed with Northwest mechanics, the "60 Minutes" crew, local TV stations and others. The crowd count was about 300, the most ever to watch a council hearing.

The council heard Austin accuse WCCO of relying on questionable sources, using sensationalism in its promos and failing to put Minneapolis-based Northwest's safety record in context with the records of other airlines. Shelby, a well-respected journalist who has been with WCCO for 17 years, countered that all facts were independently corroborated and that he'd noted in each broadcast that "Northwest is one of the safest airlines." But, he said, the station had the right to document Northwest's shortcomings. Throughout the hearing, WCCO maintained its report was completely accurate and the airline's complaint unwarranted.

The final vote was devastating for Shelby and the station. By a 19 to 2 margin, the council determined the stories created a "distorted, untruthful" picture of Northwest's safety procedures. By a vote of 14 to 5, the council decided that promos should be held to the same journalistic standards as newspaper headlines. By a vote of 18 to 1, it concluded the WCCO promo spots were distorted.

"You have taken the wind out my sails," a dejected Shelby told the council. "I came out of retirement [from investigative reporting] to do the investigation. I think I will go back into retirement." Shelby did not return phone calls from AJR.

WCCO General Manager Jan McDaniel, who came to the station two weeks before the hearing, didn't feel the council gave the station a fair hearing. "It was my impression the news council had made up its mind before the actual meeting," she says. "My impression of the Northwest situation was there was some distortion in the promotions and some of the graphics. It really wasn't necessary. But it was a good story and the facts were true. I think we learned something about viewer perception about our stories."

After the news council "verdict," WCCO conducted a poll, says McDaniel, which indicated the station wasn't hurt by the news council finding. What did hurt, says McDaniel, was a fax sent out by the council encouraging members to watch Wallace's "60 Minutes" report and celebrate. "We took our medicine," she says. "But I wouldn't think it was a cause for celebration for us or the news council. It's a serious issue." Gilson says he was just inviting members to watch "60 Minutes," as would anyone whose work is being featured on the famous CBS newsmagazine. (Ironically, the day after the council ruled against the station, WCCO won a regional Emmy for its Northwest series.)

In a newspaper commentary, Gilson wrote, "WCCO deserves a lot of credit for taking part in the news council's public hearing. The station risked sharply focused criticism but enjoyed major benefits: Northwest waived its right to sue in order to qualify for a hearing and the public saw a broadcaster open enough to be held accountable."

And WCCO, despite taking a public beating, has no intention of pulling out of the council.

MUCH HAS CHANGED SINCE THE DEATH OF the National News Council. So are news councils an idea whose time has come? The public appears to like the idea. Eighty-five percent of the people surveyed by the Center for Media and Public Affairs said they approved of creating news councils to investigate complaints and issue corrections when necessary.

But given the staunch opposition of many journalists, establishing councils on the national or state level faces steep challenges.

"I'm convinced it's workable," says Michigan's Eisendrath. "But I'm just interested in something that will address the need to improve the quality of professional journalism today. Frankly, I've been terrified with the state of our profession. But I think we are the people who ought to fix it."

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