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 AJR  Columns

From AJR,   September 1998  issue

The Best Protection Against Misdeeds?   

It's the press itself, and that was not always so.


By Reese Cleghorn
Reese Cleghorn is former president of AJR and former dean of the College of Journalism of the University of Maryland.     


FOR THE PUBLIC, as well as for journalists, the big question is whether our recent spate of misdeeds means that journalism is worse than ever, fabrications are common and standards have gone out the window.
But there is another element in this. The press is being held more accountable. By the press.
Most news organizations are more careful than ever to assure the integrity of their work, in my judgment. But there is more reporting and there are more pressures of time. And so there are more breakdowns.
In the end, what is the best defense against bad performance? Half a century ago the Commission on Freedom of the Press, headed by Robert Maynard Hutchins of the University of Chicago, concluded that the failings of the press were being kept under cover.
``We recommend that the members of the press engage in vigorous mutual criticism,'' it said. ``Professional standards are not likely to be achieved as long as the mistakes and errors, the frauds and crimes, committed by units of the press are passed over in silence by other members of the profession.''
The commission found little self-criticism and hardly any independent reviews of journalism performance. That was in 1947. Today the press relentlessly exposes its own bad performances.
Just about everybody out there who pays attention to news knows about the debacles involving CNN and Time and their nerve gas story, Peter Arnett's egg-on-his-face embarrassment, the just-plain-fabrications of New Republic writer Stephen Glass and Boston Globe columnist Patricia Smith, and the saga of the Globe's Mike Barnicle, held to a higher standard than he had been before.
But, you may argue, the press' self-criticism is not the reason we know about the Cincinnati Enquirer's groveling surrender to Chi -quita Brands International.
Didn't the public learn about this only because of a threatened lawsuit that moved lawyers to agree on a public confession by the Enquirer? Ah, but the real story of the story is still unfolding. And when it is out, good reporting most likely will be the reason.
Arnett's confession in the CNN case was positively painful. At least it further exposed a weakness of network television. It's different. Big teams do the big stories, and no ``talent'' who must be on air many times a year with big stories is good enough to be the guarantor of their truthfulness.
Arnett admitted that he merely presented the story. He said he didn't change a comma and had no time to really get into the substance behind his report. This is pretty close to what network anchors usually do. But Peter Arnett, the greatest war reporter of our time, a man whose credibility is based not on splendid on-air skills but on his reputation as a reporter? Say it ain't so, Peter. But he said it was so.
Here is something that journalists, amid their current embarrassments, may take pride in: A journalist may get away with weak journalism or just careless reporting. But you can't often get away with deliberate falsifications or earth-shaking exposÚs that have no substance.
The press will find you out.

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