disapproval that the newspaperman and former NBC News head
was selected as a keynote speaker at the group's convention sp.
MICHAEL GARTNER weathered a couple of ethical storms while he was president of NBC News ? and even though he's returned to the relative calm of the Iowa newspaper business, he's the subject of another controversy.
A handful of Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) members voiced disapproval, via an electronic bulletin board, that Gartner was picked to be a keynote speaker at the group's national convention in St. Paul next October.
Especially vociferous was Jonathan Salant, president of SPJ's Washington, D.C., contingent, who initiated the discourse over SPJ Online.
Salant, a Congressional Quarterly reporter, also used his column in the chapter newsletter to denounce putting Gartner on the program.
"Making someone the keynote speaker is an honor. And Gartner, for all his journalism accomplishments, forfeited the right to that honor because of his ethical lapses at NBC," Salant wrote.
He contended that if newspeople are to "win back the public's trust, we must hold ourselves accountable and ferret out ethical violations within our profession."
Another member, who did not identify himself, likened enlisting Gartner to honoring Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan at a United Jewish Appeal meeting.
"Why is Michael Gartner, who has done more to destroy journalism credibility than anyone else in the last few years, featured at an SPJ convention?" he asked. "He should be condemned, not invited."
Still, other SPJ cybersurfers wondered what all the fuss was about.
"I, frankly, want journalists of all types to attend" SPJ functions, wrote national secretary-treasurer Steve Geimann. "From some, I want to learn more; from others, I want to debate, argue and criticize their actions and their principles. I can't do that when they're not present."
And BellSouth's Bill McCloskey responded to Salant: "You see/read more journalism than that. What has Michael Gartner done to raise him to such a high-level target of your rancor?"
Gartner, editor and co-owner of the Daily Tribune in Ames, Iowa, and a USA Today columnist, came to prominence as a top executive and editor at the Wall Street Journal, Des Moines Register and Tribune, and Louisville Times and Courier-Journal.
A former president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the career newspaperman shifted gears in 1988, when he went to NBC.
He resigned from the network two years ago after two notable no-nos occurred on his watch ? indiscretions that provoked wide censure, not only of Gartner's news organization but of journalism in general.
In 1991, NBC identified Patricia Bowman as the woman who had accused William Kennedy Smith, nephew of Sen. Edward Kennedy, of rape.
News professionals, journalism ethicists, media critics and feminist groups excoriated the peacock network. But NBC maintained it was only following the lead of the New York Times and the Star supermarket tabloid, which had also named Bowman before she herself came forward.
Then, in 1993, another public relations disaster struck when it was revealed that the magazine program "Dateline NBC" had falsified a story on the safety of General Motors trucks. A vehicle was rigged to blow up on impact ? making for dramatic video but remarkably unscrupulous reporting.
Once again, wrath poured down on NBC, which, in the wake of the scandal, hired a news ombudsman to help boost its image.
In an interview, Salant contended that the ethical guidelines SPJ holds its members to should apply to convention speakers as well.
"Sometimes," he said, "I think people are willing to overlook [the rules] for celebrities, instead of saying, Wait a minute ? I don't care if they're a celebrity; they violated our code of ethics."
In a 1988 speech, Gartner, who has a law degree, expressed disdain for written journalism principles, ethical studies, and courses and seminars on ethics. When such guidelines are put on paper, he argued, they "tend to be cast in stone."
His view follows that of most media attorneys, who say statements of ethics provide ammunition for libel lawsuits.
When reached at his paper in Ames, Gartner ? who denied any knowledge of the SPJ flap and, after he was told about it, said he wasn't paying it any attention ? defended himself and NBC. He maintained the network did the right thing journalistically when it refused to suppress information about the Bowman case and faced up to its responsibility for the exploding truck fiasco.
"With 'Dateline,' after I found out we made a mistake, I stood up and apologized ? and that's rarely done in TV, and not often in print," Gartner said, noting that he himself didn't go out and sabotage the pickup. "I'm proud of everything I've ever done in journalism," he said.
Muncie (Ind.) Star metro editor Kelly Hawes, who takes over as SPJ national president at the upcoming convention and was responsible for lining up speakers there, doesn't agree with Salant that being asked to give a keynote address is an honor, or that Gartner shouldn't have been asked.
"It's not like presenting Mr. Gartner with an SPJ Fellow award or any other awards this society presents," he said. "I was inviting speakers, based on the fact that they had interesting thoughts to share with our convention, and I don't believe there's any real reason to eliminate Mr. Gartner, based on what Jonathan's pointed out about his past." (Incidentally, Gartner was named an SPJ Fellow last year.)
Hawes related that, as a young journalist, he heard Gartner give a speech and found him compelling, which was the reason why he considered the Iowa newsman a natural choice to address the 13,500-member society.
"I think to be a keynote speaker, you have to be a good speaker," he said, "and I don't think there's any question Mr. Gartner is a good speaker."
New York Times managing editor Gene Roberts and Carole Simpson of ABC News also are scheduled to give keynote addresses at the Minnesota conclave.
Current SPJ national president Reginald Stuart backed the decision to have Gartner appear. "If you always avoid inviting people around whom there is some controversy, then you'll never understand what they're about or learn anything by having heard them out," said the assistant news editor of Knight-Ridder's D.C. bureau.
Stuart added: "Of all the people in the news business today, Michael Gartner is not exactly one of the most controversial figures."
?(I'm proud of everything I've ever done in journalism." ) [Caption]
?(Michael Garnter, editor and co-owner of the Daily Tribune in Ames, Iowa) [Photo & Caption]
By: Tony Case Some Society of Professional Journalists members voice