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From AJR,   September 1999  issue

Familiar Terrain, Important Insights   

Warp Speed: America in the Age of Mixed Media

By Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel
Century Foundation Press
193 pages; $24.95


By Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.

     

Early in the coverage of the Clinton/Lewinsky matter, the New York Times found itself with four sources saying a witness had seen an encounter between the president and his intern friend.

But the paper killed the story, after deciding that all four sources had gained their information secondhand from the same place.

Not so conservative was the Chicago Tribune, which printed the accusation, citing ABC News as the originating media source but noting that the Tribune itself could not confirm it.

Not conservative at all were the New York Post and New York Daily News, which headlined the accusation on their front pages. Their source? ABC News.

This story has been told before, but Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel make effective use of it in their fine new book examining how the Lewinsky scandal has affected the press and its credibility.

Unsurprisingly, their general view is gloomy. "The classic function of journalism to sort out a true and reliable account of the day's events is being undermined," they argue, by a series of developments that are lowering the threshold for what gets published and reducing the corroboration and evidence required to launch material into the news stream.

The result, they say, is a new "Mixed Media Culture" that veers toward sensationalism, mingles information with innuendo, and threatens the bond of trust between news media and their audiences.

Kovach and Rosenstiel are both respected former newspeople affiliated with the reform-minded Committee of Concerned Journalists. They take an unapologetic and traditionalist view of the media's public service duties. Little of what they say is brand new, but they do a crisp, authoritative job of synthesizing key concerns that should trouble both the press and the public.

Their central argument is that five major developments have conspired to undermine media responsibility:

The "never-ending news cycle," a nonstop, multimedia news-talk festival whose bottomless demand for material encourages hasty and premature reporting and keeps stories going beyond their natural lifespans.

The growing empowerment of sources over journalists, a function of proliferating competition. With "a rising demand for news product and a limited supply of news makers," sources can increasingly dictate how information is used and can play one medium against another.

The decline of gatekeeping. With so many news outlets, there are some who will publish almost anything. As "the lowest standards tend to drive out the higher," even the most respected media are pressured toward passing along dubious information.

The rise of argument at the expense of reporting, another consequence of the voracious demand to fill air and space. "Commentary, chat, speculation, opinion, argument, controversy, and punditry cost far less than assembling a team of reporters, producers, fact checkers, and editors," the authors point out.

The "blockbuster mentality," a media lust for big, sexy stories that will, at least temporarily, enthrall the audience and build the all-important consumer numbers.

Although they aren't quite this blunt, what Kovach and Rosenstiel are saying is that television's lower standards now trample the once-dominant values championed by the elite print media. They find more opinion and less reporting, more anonymous and one-source stories, less skepticism and willingness to acknowledge uncertainty.

But what of the public? "Warp Speed" argues that the scandal "deepened public antipathy toward the press." Yet who was watching all these talk shows? Who was smirking over the lubricious daily headlines? What, if not audience demand, was prompting respectable journalists to wallow in stories about thongs and dress stains?

"Warp Speed" adroitly describes changes going on inside the media but is less helpful in tracing them to causal forces in the marketplace.

Kovach and Rosenstiel make a reasonable case for high standards. They urge every news organization to "Decide what you stand for. Articulate what you stand for. Then practice what you preach." But they offer few specifics for rallying the media toward higher values.

Still, this book is a timely and important warning shot. At least one good thing has finally come of the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal.