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American Journalism Review
Celebrity Journalists  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   September 1997

Celebrity Journalists   

It's part of Watergate's legacy: a highly paid, star-studded media elite. That's good for a handful of journalists, but is it good for journalism?

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



TWO JOURNALISTS ARE PLAYING GOLF at a country club in Maryland. One man, a Washington Post columnist who also has his own radio show and appears on local television, can barely tee off without someone interrupting him to pay homage. By virtue of his multimedia exposure, the Post's Tony Kornheiser is a local celebrity.

``It was hilarious,'' recalls Kornheiser's golfing partner, Post editor Bob Woodward. ``Everyone came up to him: `Tony, I listen to your show.' `I love this.' `I love that.' `What do you think about this?' `What do you think about that?' No one ever came up to me.''

Woodward, as some may recall, is somewhat famous in his own right. He and his reporting partner at the time, Carl Bernstein, brought down a president. While the work of other journalists contributed to President Richard M. Nixon's resignation in 1974, it was ``Woodstein'' who relentlessly pursued the bungled break-in at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C., 25 years ago.

The Watergate affair changed journalism in many ways, not the least of which was by launching the era of the journalist as celebrity. Woodward and Bernstein, portrayed, respectively, by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in the movie ``All the President's Men,'' were pioneers in the now widespread phenomenon in which a handful of wealthy, glamorous journalists are as famous, if not more famous, than the people they cover. ``Celebrity journalists,'' a phrase coined in 1986 by James Fallows, abound these days, on television and in print. People magazine writes about them. Vanity Fair offers up flattering profiles. Their names appear in gossip columns and on society pages. When they come to small towns simply doing their jobs, their arrival can become front page news.

We know when they wed (witness the union of Garry Trudeau and Jane Pauley), when they become parents (Connie Chung and Maury Povich's struggles with infertility and eventual adoption captivated People magazine readers) and when they get divorced (Peter Jennings and Kati Marton).

``A celebrity journalist is a journalist whose nose has risen above the wall for various reasons,'' former Washington Post Executive Editor (and celebrity journalist) Ben Bradlee said at a Freedom Forum seminar on Watergate and Celebrity Journalism in June. ``Generally the story has taken him or her there. The first thing you can say about it is it exists, and to recognize that it exists is important. The second thing you can say is that, without television, we could write up a storm and sell a million papers a day on it, but that won't get you to be a celebrity journalist except on your own block. The third thing is it's not all bad. It sure as hell isn't all good, but it isn't all bad. It opens a lot of doors.''

When Arthur Kent covered the Persian Gulf War for NBC, he became known as the ``Scud Stud.'' Everyone remembers CNN war correspondent nonpareil Peter Arnett broadcasting live from Iraq with bombs bursting around him. And this summer more has been printed about CNN anchor Bernard Shaw's appearances in the movies ``The Lost World'' and ``Contact'' than about anything he's done as a journalist.

A celebrity, writes Daniel J. Boorstin, historian and former head of the Library of Congress, ``is a person who is known for his well-knownness.'' And, he adds in an interview, ``journalists are the creators of well-knownness. In the process of creating well-knownness for others, it's not surprising that some of them become celebrities too. It's inevitable.''

Few journalists embrace the celebrity label. Woodward scoffs at the notion that he's one. But that's not how the public sees it. The public reads about journalists dining at the White House, inviting Colin Powell over for dinner, sending their kids to school with Chelsea Clinton, playing tennis with presidential assistants, partying with Hollywood stars at affairs like the White House Correspondents Dinner, receiving mind-boggling fees for hour-long speaking engagements and spouting off on TV and radio on subjects they know little or nothing about. And while the media elite is a tiny slice of the profession, it plays a major role in shaping the public's negative perception of the press.

``The public feels that journalists are too aggressive in the way they play their watchdog role, and they are doing it not because they are seeking the truth but to advance their careers,'' says Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. ``The notion that journalists were of the people, as was the case 30 or 40 years ago, is no longer the case because of the rise of celebrity journalism. I don't think this is the issue that most hurts journalism, but it's one of a cluster of things that has eroded the public confidence in the press.''

Adds journalism reformer Fallows, now editor of U.S. News & World Report, ``I don't think I'd put it [celebrity journalism] on the top five list of major problems for journalism right now. By definition, it only affects an elite. But it is a problem because it aggravates other sources of people being mad at us--and therefore not listening to what we say or do.''


Most media celebrities hail from the world of television: Peter Jennings, Ted Koppel, Sam Donaldson, Cokie Roberts, Diane Sawyer and Barbara Walters of ABC; Katie Couric (recently on the cover of the glossy George magazine), Tom Brokaw, Jane Pauley, Tim Russert and Stone Phillips of NBC; Dan Rather, Ed Bradley and Mike Wallace of CBS; Wolf Blitzer, Bernard Shaw and Judy Woodruff of CNN; Fox's Brit Hume and CNBC's Geraldo Rivera.

These are journalists who have paid their dues. They didn't burst out of the box as celebrities. But there's a new generation of journalists who have become overnight stars. Perhaps the best example is MTV's Tabitha Soren.

``We live in a celebrity culture,'' says Newsweek columnist Eleanor Clift, who herself joined the celebrity roster thanks to her frequent appearances on ``The McLaughlin Group.'' She adds, ``When I received pundit status, it was after 20 years as an anonymous print journalist.''

Clift recalls the moment during the Reagan era when she realized that celebrity journalism had become a reality. She and then-ABC White House correspondent Sam Donaldson had covered Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan together. ``Jimmy Carter held regular press conferences, and there was no need for Sam to shout his questions above everybody else,'' she said at the Freedom Forum session. Reagan, on the other hand, was elusive, and as a television reporter, Donaldson needed footage of the president.

``And so Sam adopted this persona of yelling the question at Ronald Reagan that inevitably made the big news of the day,'' Clift continued. ``When we would travel, I began to notice that the public was as interested in seeing Sam Donaldson as they were in seeing Ronald Reagan, and they would yell after him, and they would want his autograph. That was my first notion that reporters could rise above their peers and gain this.''

Donaldson, who says he didn't try to become a celebrity, says such fame has a downside. ``This affects my reporting,'' he says. ``I'm very sensitive to the idea that I run around promoting myself as a big deal. When I go out with a camera crew, I find people in the crowd come running up to me asking me for my autograph. This doesn't do me any good. Do you think that my colleagues in the press corps think that's wonderful? I often miss what I should be hearing when I'm fending off well-meaning people.''

The notoriety is such, says Donaldson, that when he tried to sneak into Biloxi, Mississippi, in 1989 to interview the mayor, who had been avoiding him, Donaldson himself became the story. ``I got off the plane and started walking through the terminal,'' he says. ``The front page of the paper said: `Sam Donaldson is coming to town.' ''

SO WHAT MAKES SOMEONE A CELEBRITY JOURNALIST, and how does one obtain that lofty status?

``A celebrity journalist is someone who is famous for who they are instead of what they report,'' says media analyst S. Robert Lichter, director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs. ``There's a spectrum going from journalists who are unknown to the pure celebrities whose journalism is irrelevant, like Geraldo Rivera. There are clearly celebrity journalists who are good reporters but whose celebrity is based upon [television exposure]. Dan Rather is both a celebrity and a good journalist.''

John Carmody, who has written a TV column for the Washington Post for 20 years, says the key is ``your willingness to become a celebrity. There's a lot of very solid journalists in television who keep their mouths shut and don't let their personal lives get into anything and don't sit still for interviews. But some of these people won't take the money and shut up. They have to appear on every panel and show up on all the talk shows.''

At the Freedom Forum seminar, Baltimore Sun columnist Jules Witcover pointed out that celebrity journalists come in two very distinct flavors: those who, like Bob Woodward, earn that status from exemplary work, and those who become famous simply because they appear on television.

Lichter cites the contrasting approaches of Woodward and Bernstein. ``Bob Woodward,'' says Lichter, ``is more of the old school, like Nelly Bly and Richard Harding Davis. They were journalists who, by virtue of breaking enormous stories, became public figures.''

Bernstein, Lichter notes, became a public figure thanks to his Watergate coverage and then chose a different route. ``Look at Carl Bernstein, who became one of the beautiful people. Where are the important works of journalism from Carl Bernstein in recent years? Woodward remained the traditional hard-working journalist, whereas Bernstein became part of the celebrity culture.''

Woodward has tried to shun celebrityhood by not going on every talk show that invites him, speaking publicly only on subjects he's written books about or is reporting on. He's not a fan of ``food fight'' television. ``I think it's a waste of time to sit around and talk about something you don't know anything about,'' he says.

Asked if he considers himself a celebrity, he responds quickly: ``I sure don't.'' Long pause; Woodward clearly is uncomfortable. ``I really love reporting. It's one of the great jobs.'' So he continues working as an editor at the Post and writing books.

Bernstein, on the other hand, never shied away from the glitz. ``After Nixon's resignation and `All the President's Men,' '' Michael Kilian wrote in 1991, ``Bernstein went on to an unsuccessful career as a TV-Network bureau chief and correspondent, but a lasting one as a professional celebrity.''

Bernstein's celebrity status was enhanced when he married author and screenwriter Nora Ephron, who later skewered him for his unfaithfulness in her book ``Heartburn.'' (Jack Nicholson played Bernstein in the movie.) Bernstein, who has written two books, said he was too busy to be interviewed for this story.

DESPITE THE DIFFERENCES, the Watergate duo together played a major role in launching the current incarnation of the journalist as star. ``Woodward and Bernstein seemed to start the trend where there's a lot more interest in the reporter than there ever seemed to be,'' says Maurine Beasley, who teaches journalism at the University of Maryland. ``The publication of their book `All the President's Men' showed the public is more interested in learning about the people who get the news.''

But the public has always been fascinated by people who report the news, says Mitchell Stephens, journalism professor at New York University and author of ``A History of News.'' In the 1930s and '40s, Walter Winchell, father of the newspaper gossip column, not only made people celebrities but was himself an influential and well-known figure. The focus shifted, however, from print journalists to their television counterparts as America became a TV-saturated culture.

``I see no evidence that journalists are better known than they were in the past...,'' Stephens says. ``We look at the journalism stars of our own era--Peter Jennings, Geraldo, Woodward and Bernstein--and we think, `Oh my God, there's no one who was ever that famous before.' But our historical understanding of journalism is very limited.''

Until the television era, print journalists were the celebrities. Figures like Richard Harding Davis, Horace Greeley, Nelly Bly, Ida Tarbell, Dorothy Thompson, William Randolph Hearst, E.W. Scripps and Joseph Pulitzer were some of the giants in the field. ``Because of their power, Hearst, Pulitzer and Scripps were major celebrities of their time,'' Stephens says. ``One of the great ironies of American history is Hearst is better known as `Citizen Kane' than as the person who printed one out of every four Sunday newspapers Americans read.''

But for a time, most journalists remained in the shadows. ``We went through a period around the turn of the century to mid-century when reporters were supposed to be relatively anonymous unless they were columnists,'' Beasley says. ``It was a period when it was a big deal for a journalist to get a byline. Bylines came into general use in the last 20 to 25 years as newspapers have tried to personalize their approach more. When I went to journalism school in the '50s, it was not an accepted practice to get a byline.''

But with television, the celebrity machine began to crank up, albeit slowly: TV reporters often were treated like second-class citizens until the early to mid-1960s, according to Lichter. But then came the dramatic footage of the civil rights movement and later the war in Vietnam, and journalists began to take a more prominent role.

``In the 1970s, there was a creation of a star system in journalism the same way there became a star system in the movies at the beginning of the century,'' Lichter says. He adds that the era of celebrity journalism may have officially begun in 1976, ``when Barbara Walters became the first million-dollar anchor on ABC. A million dollars a year was unheard of. I still personally remember the big flap because she had a hairdresser.''

Television anchors may not have had million-dollar contracts and personal hairdressers in the 1970s, but it's the norm now, along with agents and chauffeur-driven cars. On July 23, the Washington Post reported that NBC anchor Tom Brokaw had signed a five-year contract. ``Network sources said today that Brokaw is `very happy' with the deal, which is expected to put him in the $7 million-a-year salary bracket, along with other media superstars like ABC's Peter Jennings and Diane Sawyer,'' wrote the Washington Post's Carmody.

The phenomenon also was fueled by the advent of television newsmagazines, ``60 Minutes'' in particular. Journalists began appearing in mini-news dramas, not just as reporters on the sidelines, but as the good guys going after the bad guys. As the old line goes, there were few sentences in the English language more terrifying than the words, ``Mike Wallace is at the door.''

``ONE THING IS CLEAR:If you become a media celebrity, the competitors are going to start to put you under a microscope,'' says John Lavine, director of NMC, the newspaper management center at Northwestern University. Two recent examples underscore his point.

In this summer's sci-fi drama, ``Contact,'' in which actress Jodie Foster attempts to make contact with aliens from another planet, CNN plays a starring role. CNN's presence is not so surprising, given that the all-news network is owned by Time Warner, the corporate parent of the Warner Bros. studio that made the movie. In all, 13 CNN reporters and anchors appear on real CNN sets giving what seem like realistic updates on fictional contact with the planet Vega.

CNN anchor Judy Woodruff, a 26-year veteran of TV news, was not asked to appear in the movie, but says she wouldn't have anyway. ``I'm bothered by the notion that journalists can be doing their job telling stories truthfully,'' she says, ``and on the other hand be acting. But,'' she adds, ``I respect their right to do it.''

Woodruff, like many veteran reporters, says she's a purist and likes to stay out of stories. She thinks that journalism is under attack on so many fronts, and has enough problems with dwindling credibility, that reporters should stick to their basic mission, reporting on the increasingly complicated world we live in. Others have said it's confusing for the public to see well-known CNN faces on the screen making up the news. ``The media's reporting on the world's reaction sounds very much like real CNN journalism,'' wrote movie critic Jeff Millar in the Houston Chronicle in July.

Says Valerie DeBenedette, a freelance health reporter based in the suburbs of New York City, ``I think it does hurt all journalism if someone could flip through their cable channels and see Bernard Shaw with a CNN logo on HBO and on CNN simultaneously and not know which was the fiction, even if the confusion only lasted a few seconds. And when `Contact' hits cable, that could happen.''

Tom Johnson, CNN's chairman and CEO, bowed to the criticism and quickly imposed an ethics policy in July prohibiting all CNN news staffers from appearing in movies, except for Larry King (who ``has never pretended to be a journalist,'' says Johnson). ABC, NBC and CBS bar journalists from screen appearances.

Shortly before ``Contact'' debuted, CNN found itself embroiled in another contretemps when correspondent Jonathan Karl, 29, appeared in a Visa ad in June. After the network was criticized for allowing the New York-based general assignment reporter to star in the ad, Johnson moved to avoid a recurrence. He wrote in a memo, ``CNN has a strict policy that its journalists are prohibited from appearing in any commercial advertisements except promotional spots on behalf of CNN itself.'' Karl was not punished because he had received permission from a senior executive who has not been identified.

In addition to Hollywood and Madison Avenue, magazines such as People, Redbook, George and Vanity Fair reinforce the notion that journalists are stars by frequently carrying articles about them. In recent years Vanity Fair has profiled CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, the New Republic's Leon Wieseltier and former Washington Post reporter and author Elsa Walsh, Bob Woodward's wife, who is described on the cover as ``Bob Woodward's Other Writing Partner.''

Asked why Vanity Fair writes about people who are supposed to be reporting the news, not making it, Executive Editor Elise O'Shaughnessy replies that television journalists are celebrities by virtue of their looks and the money they make, citing the interest in ``anchors who [are] fabulous looking giving you the news, whether it's Peter Jennings or Diane Sawyer.''

Journalism became more interesting to the readers of Vanity Fair when journalists started becoming part of the elite, she says. Having Redford and Hoffman play Woodward and Bernstein added a touch of glamour to the once-gray field.

``It used to be a trade, and somehow it became a profession,'' O'Shaughnessy says. ``You had a lot of Ivy League graduates going into journalism. So the socioeconomic makeup changed, and it became an elite profession and of interest to the elite. The incredible salaries in TV news really begin to blur the line between entertainment and news. They get paid so well because people tune in to see Diane Sawyer because she's a personality in herself. So is Barbara Walters. Barbara Walters is as much news as the people she interviews.''

SO IS THE ADVENT of the celebrity journalist a serious problem for the profession?

``I'm sure celebrity journalism contributes to the public mistrust,'' says Robert Giles, former publisher of the Detroit News who is executive director of the Freedom Forum's Media Studies Center in New York City. ``I think the public sees some of these people as having large egos not unlike those in show business. So they become seen in the same context as other entertainment figures, as celebrities. And I think that's antithetical to the role of journalism. We all know who the cast of characters are who are making speeches and getting fees, and when there is an event, they are as much a part of the event as the event themselves.'' When they were in Hong Kong recently, he adds, ``Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather were celebrities.''

But can they help being celebrities? Brokaw has worked for NBC for 31 years. He may be known for his well-knownness, but he's also known as a competent, reliable journalist. It's what a journalist does with his or her celebrity that enhances or hurts the profession. CBS' Mike Wallace, for example, has chosen to use his well-knownness to try to find ways to make journalism more accountable to its audience, pushing for establishment of a national news council (see ``Going Public,'' April).

``Simply the fact that someone has become well-known isn't unto itself either wrong or bad,'' says Lavine. ``What we want to make judgments about is what kind of journalists are they? How credible are they? How much energy do they put into maintaining their credibility and caring about the public's confidence?''

If you remain true to the craft and don't exploit your well-knownness, Woodward says, celebrity is unimportant. ``I'm not saying celebrity journalism doesn't exist,'' he says. ``I'm saying it shouldn't exist. It inhibits the work, and reporting takes time. And that time is not spent expounding on the theory of the Clinton presidency on television. It's finding out what they really are doing.''

Celebrity status can be good for journalism, says Fallows. ``The mere fact of books coming out from Tom Wolfe, David Halberstam or Bob Woodward is news because of interest in the author as much as the subject,'' Fallows says. ``People watch or listen to radio or TV shows because they enjoy the approach--even the timbre--of certain well-known correspondents. This is actually good for journalism. The people are well-known based mainly on something in their work, and their renown gets people to pay attention to the news.''

But when they use their renown simply to promote themselves, celebrity journalists can't be good for journalism. Recently Time magazine asked high school students in South Lake Tahoe, California, whom they thought they could trust. The results: parents first, journalists dead last.

``Celebrity journalism has certainly contributed to the problem of trust in journalists,'' says Diane M. Dusick, head of the communications department at San Bernardino Valley College in California. ``It's very sad,'' Dusick adds. ``When I was growing up in the 1960s and '70s, journalists were the be all and end all. Their job was to seek truth. Now they look for the big story that will get me attention, and the truth comes second.''

The sad truth is that the elite journalists who appear in movies and high-profile magazines don't represent the profession as a whole, yet they command so much attention that it can seem that way. They overshadow people like Judy Woodruff or Bob Woodward or Jules Witcover, who are known but don't trade on their journalistic credentials to enhance themselves; and on the countless other journalists who do their jobs well on the sidelines.

Thirteen years ago Charles Bailey, then editor of Minneapolis' Star- Tribune, presciently predicted the trouble this small segment of the media might cause. Bailey urged journalists to do something to ``keep the privileged few from giving the rest of the news business a bad name.'' That hasn't proven to be an easy task.

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