By: Gretchen A. Peck
Nothing titillates like the promise of scandal, as the nation proved in recent weeks replete with political juice. But scandals in the media, created by the media, appear to be a different breed for consumers of U.S. news — in stark contrast to what’s unfolded across the pond in the wake of the so-called phone-hacking scandal, the misdeeds of a few very bad apples in the British press.
It would not be an accurate portrayal of the British media scene to suggest that the public it served was immediately engaged in the news of deplorable practices by certain members of the media and the politicians and police officials with whom they colluded. Rather, as Janine Gibson, editor-in-chief of Guardian US, said, interest came in the form of a “slow drip.”
“The Guardian was breaking and publishing stories about it for several years, and it was met with apathy by even the establishment, which later … was explicable when you saw what happened within Scotland Yard and other media organizations,” Gibson said.
It wasn’t until the criminal behavior crossed the line from celebrity to civilian, in the tragic murder case of Milly Dowler, that the British public began to perk up and demand truth and accountability. There was no question that the media’s brand had been tarnished, the trust eroded, prompting Parliament intervention.
Enter Lord Justice Brian Leveson, charged with overseeing a comprehensive and formal inquiry into the news media’s dirty deeds. During his presentation of the findings, Leveson chastised the media as a whole: “Unfortunately, as the evidence has shown beyond doubt … the editors’ code of conduct, which the press wrote and promoted, have simply been ignored. This has damaged the public interest, caused real hardship, and on occasion, wreaked havoc on the lives of innocent people.”
Though many in the British press agreed with this assessment in relation to the actual offenders, the Royal Charter published as a result of The Leveson Inquiry was deemed “unworkable” by members of the Newspaper Society, and dismissed for granting government too much power over the industry.
NS director David Newell reportedly petitioned Britain’s culture secretary Maria Miller on behalf of its members. According to the NS, Newell wrote, “The Charter punishes regional and local newspapers for crimes and activities for which they have been found innocent and asks them to be part of an expensive, burdensome regulatory structure either as part of the whole industry or on their own.”
Instead, the Newspaper Society, while concurring with the need for some oversight and change, offered a proposal of its own. As with the Royal Charter, the proposed Independent Royal Charter promises to create a regulatory body — presided over by a retired Supreme Court Justice and including non-practicing members of the industry, as well as members representing the populace — that would be a steward of the public’s interests. The newly formed panel would have teeth, too, including the power to levy fines up to £1 million on organizations for “systematic wrongdoing.”
The Independent Royal Charter, according to the NS, has the support of more than 90 percent of regional and local newspaper publishers.
Regulation v. the free press
Government oversight of the media isn’t new or novel. In fact, across the globe, from third-world nations to those in Europe and Latin America, the concept of press codes and press regulation “is kind of taken as a given,” according to Rick Edmonds, media business analyst and leader of news transformation at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla.
The United States’ media culture is inherently unique. “We like the First Amendment, even politicians. We’re proud of it. It sets us apart,” Edmonds said. “Bill Keller, who was editor of The New York Times at the time, once said, ‘(Politicians) will complain non-stop about unfair coverage, but at the end of the day, they really don’t want to mess with the liberties of the press.’”
From his reading of the British Newspaper Society’s self-regulatory counter-proposal, Edmonds recalled a similar historical parallel here in the States: The National News Council formed in 1973, comprising a blend of journalists and members of the public, which was disbanded by the mid-80s. Since then, there have been a few rally cries from some notable figures — both media and non-media types — to bring it back in the form of a media watchdog. In light of Leveson overseas and increasingly distrusted mainstream media in the U.S., it’s no surprise that these questions are arising again.
When asked about whether it may be a ripe moment to reignite conversations about a national organization of this kind, Edmonds was unconvinced, and said that he didn’t see an “appetite” for a national council in this day and age, though a few states have implemented similar mediators.
Certainly, here in the U.S., the media’s visceral reaction to the notion of a government-imposed “self-regulatory board” would likely smack of skepticism, apathy, or even contempt, given the First Amendment protections to which the press is afforded. Yet, there may be lessons to learn from our media brethren in the U.K.
In just one week’s recent time here in the U.S., two media-related scandals broke: Bloomberg journalists were caught with their hands in the Wall Street cookie jar, allegedly spying on high-profile investment clients and government officials, including Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke and former Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner. Meanwhile, the Department of Justice had been snooping on phone records of Associated Press reporters and its Washington Bureau Chief while trying to nab the source of a classified-information leak.
In the case of Bloomberg’s terminal scandal, the AP reporter Adam Geller pointed out that “it highlights the uncertain and rapidly changing ethical landscape facing companies that, like Bloomberg, are reinventing the news business. And it raises key questions for people who watch the media, most notably this one: As the news business gets reconfigured around advances in technology, what does that mean for the old rules and the people who follow them?” (“In Bloomberg uproar, ethics flags for new media,” May 16).
In this tale of two scandals, only one (the DOJ’s AP intrusion) was deemed worthy of sustained national news coverage, but not because the public was particularly concerned about journalists’ First Amendment rights. On even this matter, the public appeared apathetic about not just what the media does, but whether there’s an absolute need for a free press at all. This revelation should be disconcerting to newspaper publishers. The battle ahead is not one of mere technological innovation and revenue streams; the battle is systemic and cultural.
Guardian US’ Gibson quipped that, here in the States, if a celebrity reveals too much skin during prime time, it becomes scandal fodder that sucks the energy from all other news. Meanwhile, an actual scandal is met with little scrutiny from the public. The Associated Press phone-record intrusion is a perfect example. Gibson added: “There is a ferociousness of censorship of bad language and sex, and yet here we have what could be described as at least a blurred (ethical) situation, with the DOJ subpoenaing the phone records of more than 20 journalists in a massive fishing exercise, and the people sort of stand down and say, ‘Well, they must have needed it.’ So, you’ve got to wonder: Is it because the media has so few friends in the public and political world that nobody wants to speak up on our behalf?
“There are a few publications — unfortunately, a vanishing few — that readers believe and trust to such an extent that not only will they give them the benefit of the doubt when the entire industry appears to be behaving badly, but they will also respond with fury to defend them,” Gibson said.
Greed is not good
If the industry is to blame its affliction on cultural infirmity, Robert “Bo” Sacks, president of Precision Media Group in Charlottesville, Va., suggested drilling down to its origin. “The bigger issue is greed,” Sacks said. “All of these nuances are about greed, and that’s something that we can’t put back in the bottle … We have lost our moral barometer, and we began to feel righteous enough to do anything — steal files, intrude on other people’s personal spaces. Celebrity magazines, for example, have become increasingly intrusive. Where does the power, the authority to do that, come from? Greed.”
While there is certainly a market for media watchdog organizations, many are privately held and serve a particular agenda. “Exactly,” Sacks said, “and that agenda is not for the public good.”
The Royal Charter and the Newspaper Society’s proposed alternative appear to agree that the relationship between news organizations and the populace must be nurtured and strengthened. Though the advent of digital media has certainly torn down barriers between journalists and the readers they serve, the tone remains adversarial.
Increasingly, newspaper publishers and journalists are tempering this climate by opening up the hood, and allowing readers to see how information is gathered, how editorial judgment is wielded, and how stories take form.
As an editor, Gibson confided that consumers do value more transparency into “how the sausage is made,” and that publishers must position themselves to give their readers this level of access. There’s no going back, she warned. “It’s like politicians saying, ‘I think we need to go back to the 18th century, when we just had to say something, and everyone obeyed. We didn’t have to answer the tough questions about what we do with our money!’ That’s gone. You’re going to have to earn the respect individually, with every story, with every piece, with every issue, just like a politician has to,” she said.
“That’s not bad. That’s fine,” Gibson continued. “We may as well strive to make ourselves better journalists. Openness does take away some of the mystique — of course it does — but it also takes away a lot of the opportunity to hide our practices, so let’s embrace it.”
Poynter’s Edmonds concurred. “I still don’t think people are especially interested in long (explanations) about how we got a story, but some of that — and also responding to people who ask, and making that information accessible — is a good step forward,” he said.
“We’re now in a world where there’s a glut of information — information overload — and we haven’t had the opportunity yet to fine-tune the process of what will end up being qualified as quality journalism in the digital world,” Precision Media’s Sacks said. “It hasn’t risen to the top yet. We’re too young. We don’t know what it looks like, and the masses don’t know, either. They’re confused by this glut of information …
“But the bottom line,” Sacks said, “is that I have faith in society. I’m an optimist, and I think eventually the public figures things out, not always to my liking or to my agreement, but eventually, they figure things out. And we’ve made it as a conscious body for 6,000 years, and we’ll make it even further. Everything is going to be fine. Kids are going to read. The world’s democratized knowledge base is growing. There are 6 billion people who have access to the Internet, and that’s mostly a good thing.”
Cautious optimism may be refreshing to weary industry ears, but complacency — a ‘let’s just sit back and see how it all shakes out’ attitude — would be toxic to international news organizations.
“Our industry is vulnerable,” Gibson said. “The years when we felt entitled to our voice, our platform, and our megaphone, and everyone just sort of listened, are behind us.”
Gibson challenged her colleagues to ponder: “Where are the people? Where are your friends? Where are the readers who will support and protect you, not only by paying for (the newspaper) but defending the very publishing of it? You’ve got to hope and trust that the news organization that puts in the time and effort to be held accountable will prevail. Readers’ ombudsmen, having visible corrections, and promoting policies like not paying for stories … we hope that these things will pay off and ensure longevity.”
For more than 15 years, Gretchen A. Peck has written about the business of publishing, printing, and graphic communications. She formerly served as editor-in-chief and editorial director for Book Business and Publishing Executive magazines.