By: Robert Buckman
ABC’s Jim Wooten blames ‘people like Geraldo Rivera’ for
undermining journalistic ethics; takes a poke at NBC, CBS sp.
A VETERAN TELEVISION newsman who began his career in print told an audience of student journalists here that the news profession has become “less serious and more trivial” and bemoaned the “pernicious influence” of television on daily newspapers.
Jim Wooten, senior correspondent for ABC News, addressed the awards luncheon at the ninth annual convention of the Southeast Journalism Conference recently on the subject of journalistic ethics in the 1990s.
Wooten, who wrote for the New York Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer and Esquire before he switched to television, lamented that since he began his career 30 years ago, journalists have “much more respect . . . and less impact,” and he blamed television as the root of the problem.
“Television has erased the line between what we’ve always known as journalism and whatever the hell this other thing is,” Wooten told the more than 200 college journalism students and professors gathered from five states.
“I don’t even know what to call it. But it’s that thing that allows people like Geraldo Rivera to describe themselves as journalists. It is that thing which somehow produces a moment in the American culture in which Connie Chung says to Mrs. Gingrich, ‘Oh, you can just tell me what he said, I won’t tell anybody else,’ and then does.”
Quipping that he wouldn’t say “anything bad about ABC,” Wooten also cited the case of “Dateline NBC’s” fabricating the explosion of a General Motors pickup truck, and faulted CBS’ “60 Minutes” for betraying a promise not to show a source on screen.
“I think it has to do with money and greed and the fact that, because television is the richest and biggest gorilla, it has put its foot down and smudged badly, if not completely, the line we’ve always understood,” Wooten said.
He said an examination of major daily newspapers across the United States would show “what a pernicious influence television has had on them, on the depth of their stories, on the presentation of their news, on the quality of their writing ? and on the attention span of their readers.
“Everyone assumes that because the culture is so television-oriented, that nobody really wants to read, and, so, the newspapers don’t really ask us to read much anymore,” Wooten said.
He said it is both a blessing and a curse that, in a free society, there are no rules imposed on journalists.
“We don’t need a license to do what I do,” he said.
“We just do it. There are canons, there are codes, but, in effect, there are no rules and there are no real ethical standards to which all of us adhere and [which] govern our behavior.”
Wooten conceded that during his career he has spent very little time pondering the question of journalistic ethics because he has never found it necessary.
“The ethics of journalism are the same as the ethics for living,” he told the students.
“Tell the truth, be honest, be kind, be decent with your neighbors, be faithful to your calling,” he said.
Wooten cited two personal ethical anecdotes from his experience covering the Persian Gulf War. In one, he agreed to a U.S. battalion commander’s request not to show the faces of any of his dead men. The other instance, he said, was the time that he knew a week in advance precisely when the Allied ground offensive against Iraq would commence and which units were involved.
“Now,” he asked the students, rhetorically, “what should I do with that story? Nothing. That’s not hard, that’s not, ‘Just whisper it to me, and I won’t tell anybody.’ It’s not hard. It’s instinctive.
“It’s what you do, and you don’t require a college education, and it doesn’t take 57 years to figure that out. It’s just who you are.”
Wooten said journalism, and especially reporting, still is a rewarding and challenging career, but he cautioned the students not to go into journalism if their motive is to become a celebrity, “to become much more important than the story, the assignment you were given.”
?(“Television has erased the line between what we’ve always known as journalism and whatever the hell this other thing is.”) [Caption]
?(Jim Wooten, senior correspondent, ABC News) [Photo & Caption]