Mass Deception: The Public's Hate/Hate Relationship With the Press
ABC's "PrimeTime Live" crew that in 1992 sent two producers undercover with hidden cameras to obtain a story on the alleged sale of rotten meat in Food Lion supermarket stores measures as mere prankishness compared to reporters for The Chicago Sun-Times.In 1978, the newspaper and a "60 Minutes" team in a joint effort to obtain an expose on corruption among Chicago officials set up and operated a phony bar, farcically named the Mirage, to catch inspectors demanding bribes to overlook violations. The resulting series earned the reporters accolades and criticism, a Pulitzer Prize nomination and a back-handed admonishment from the awards board that voted not to present them with the honor. "PrimeTime Live" received a $5.5 million bill for its Food Lion story, meted out in January by a Greensboro, NC federal jury in punitive damages for the methods ABC used to get its story, which the jury did not view as part of the trial. Its truth or falsity was not in question. Food Lion had charged the news magazine committed fraud when its reporters submitted false resumes to obtain jobs with the chain, had trespassed and had been disloyal employes to Food Lion. The jury agreed.Food Lion v. ABC was the first case of its kind, a litigious examination of news-gathering techniques, to reach the courts and to result in a verdict that carried a sizeable award, which is being appealed by ABC."The only thing we did was set parameters," the jury's foreman told "NBC News" in early February. "We told them to grow up, to work within the legal system. That's what they're paying all the high-priced lawyers for."Not one of the half-dozen jurors interviewed said they would have changed their verdicts had they been allowed to view the story that included evidence of employes mishandling and falsely dating meat. The foreman expressed outrage that the camera crew stood by and allowed allegedly 24-day-old turkey meat to be sold to customers, perhaps to be taken home to "someone's granddaughter."The jury's message, the public's shot at advising the press to gain maturity, to climb down from its lofty pedestal, to uncloak itself of the First Amendment, to be truthful in its purported mission of truth-seeking, has been received by news organizations across the country, the members of which are groping to locate hastily re-drawn parameters.Many predict a "chilling effect" will ensue, that the media will back off of aggressive reporting, most certainly will tether hidden cameras, and for smaller stations and newspapers the cold wind could be icy indeed.Journalists, who have a penchant for questioning whether the public knows what they do and why in the best of times, must now be convinced it hasn't a clue. And they find as distressing scrutiny of their journalistic ethics, or lack thereof.The North Carolina ruling serves as an exclamation to criticism of news coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial, sensationalism surrounding the murder of young JonBenet Ramsey and the hounding of Olympic Resort bombing "suspect" Richard Jewel. We could be marking a new low in the relationship between press and public.Ethical standards for journalists, which some might argue is an oxymoron, are relatively new and somewhat ill-defined, whereas reporters using subterfuge to obtain stories isn't. A pioneer in that arena, Nellie Bly in 1887 feigned insanity to gain admission to the New York City Lunatic Asylum for a reform-pushing report that ran in The New York World on abuses of the mentally ill.Most reporters, those who have been in the business for a decade or more, have "posed," the most common role assumed, and one many would argue is the least intrusive, is as a member of the public. Reporters regularly conceal or decline to reveal their identities in order to obtain information readily available to the general public, and, as importantly, in order to be treated as a member of the public would be treated under the same circumstances. The oft-used justification is that the press represents the public, most notably in its adversarial role with the government.Often reporters, who are as adept at punching clocks as their blue-collar brethren when it benefits them, are making a judgment as to which of their identities most easily will net the desired information."I don't wear a name tag," one reporter summed up the thinking. "I think most of the time you can get the story without having to resort to that, but different people have different styles," said Steve Jackson, an investigative reporter with Denver Westword, an alternative weekly owned by the New Times, Inc. chain. "There have been times when I haven't necessarily volunteered the information and have gone to places but then admitted the truth. I think good reporters who know what they're doing can get the story without having to resort to that."Much of the recent criticism of news-gathering tactics has been heaped on broadcast journalists in their tangles with private enterprise, but that could be due more to network TV's high profile and deep pockets than to sub-standard practices, although hidden cameras increasingly are the focus of multi-million-dollar jury awards.In a January New York Times opinion piece, Paul Starobin, staff writer for the National Journal, characterized the use of hidden cameras as "part of the ratings-driven descent by the major networks into the swamp of tabloid journalism."Writer William Powers, in a January New Republic piece, described the inherent hazards of hidden cameras, which yield "footage, with its grainy cinema verite quality and its you-are-there evocations of FBI stings and bank robbery films, that carries an associative suggestion of guilt powerful enough to override even scrupulously evenhanded writing."Consider the cost of entering tabloid's territory, usually set by juries but frequently overturned in appeal: * ABC was hit with a $10 million libel verdict in December involving a "20/20" segment in 1991 that accused a Florida banker of treating investors unfairly.* Another $10 million verdict was slapped on ABC in 1994 for a "World News Tonight" piece, aired in 1992, suggesting that a company's trash recycling program didn't work.* In 1994 a California jury awarded $1 million in compensatory and punitive damages to two men over a "PrimeTime Live" story alleging that, as psychics, the men were taking advantage of the public.* "PrimeTime Live" was the subject of yet another lawsuit, this brought by an electronic repair business over a 1992 story of alleged rip-offs in the industry. The jury sided against ABC, but awarded only $1 in damages. Attached to the verdict, however, was a note from the jury suggesting the network take "another look at 'Primetime''s goals and objectives" and "be sure that the kind of reporting coming from this show is what you, as an outstanding news organization, would put your name on."Dick Leonard, former editor of The Milwaukee Journal, served on the Pulitzer review board that considered rewarding The Chicago Sun-Times for its "ingenuity" in snaring corrupt officials. The nomination was rejected by a 12-to-2 vote of the board, with Leonard and one other member defending the newspaper."I thought it was one of the best investigative stories I ever saw," Leonard told City Edition. "They had pictures of inspectors taking bribes. But they threw it out on the grounds there had been misrepresentation. I didn't feel that way." Another board member, the editor of an eastern newspaper, debated the matter with Leonard. "If my kids lied to me the way they lied, I'd whack them," the editor said."I said, 'They didn't lie. They reported what happened,'" Leonard recounted. "But there was a strong feeling, even at that time, that the press was having trouble maintaining its integrity -- lying and using subterfuge, hidden cameras -- that was damaging to the overall attitude toward the media."Leonard said during his 40 years at The Journal begun in 1947, the latter half of which he spent as editor of the paper, he was aware of only one incident that occurred involving a troubling violation of ethics. A reporter, unbeknownst to his superiors, posed as a lawyer to obtain information that otherwise would not have been gained."That troubled us a great deal. We were very careful with what we did with that material," said Leonard. "Personally, I was always on the side of a more ethical approach. I was active in the Society of Professional Journalism to establish a code of ethics, which we did. I would rather make an error on the side of ethics."Leonard said he wasn't surprised by the jury's verdict in the Food Lion case, but was by the amount of the award. "I think it reflects the public hostility toward the news media, which is quite strong," he said.George Reedy, former press secretary to President Lyndon Johnson, recalls without much fondness his fourth-grade teacher, who in his memory seemingly spent a half-hour daily haranguing the media. Reedy's father was a newspaperman at the time."So that was kind of hard to take," said the Marquette University professor emeritus. Reedy takes the position that the public and press always have had a strained relationship and likely will continue to be distant. "I think what happens is we're all honest and intelligent, and consequently anything that doesn't agree with us is either dishonest or unintelligent," Reedy said. "The media gives a version of what actually happened, so everyone who has an opinion of what happened that's different than the media's has to figure that the media has a vested interest."Reedy attributes much of the animosity between the public and press nowadays to a subtle force that has been developing since the 1930s. In the days when nearly every major city had competing and contrasting papers, they took strong, partisan political positions. Now newspapers largely are apolitical and the cost has been the loss of a vital core of support."I can recall when the Chicago Tribune wouldn't mention a Democrat unless he was caught in a hayloft with a sheep and the Chicago Daily Times wouldn't mention the name of a Republican," said Reedy. "Now you can read the Chicago Tribune for a solid month and you won't be able to tell what its politics are. Newspapers have lost the partisan following they once had, and now they look like they're partisan to everybody."Reporters, in Reedy's view, never were accorded much respect. The popular perception, taken straight from The Front Page, was of sleazy characters who drank too much, played poker and hid criminals in roll-top desks.In the February 1996 Atlantic Monthly article "Why Americans Hate The Media," writer James Fallows traces popular treatment of reporters in film, from "gritty" characters in the '30s who instinctively sided with the common man, to the '70s and "better-paid but still gritty" Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in roles that were forces in toppling a cancerous presidency. Then came Absence of Malice's Sally Field, who recklessly ruined the reputation of businessman Paul Newman, and Broadcast News' Holly Hunter and Albert Brooks, who were "ground down by philistines at their network." Nowadays, when film shows reporters, they're either interloping snoops who worsen the horrible situations they encounter, or buffoons who achieve the same results, but with a few laughs along the way.Fallows makes a case that the media has fallen into disfavor with Americans for a myriad of reasons, most of which are the result of reporters having lost touch with the concerns of the public, which makes them appear supremely elitist. Fallows cites the national media's response to President Bill Clinton's 1994 State of the Union Speech, which largely lambasted the President for failing to set forth a clear and concise agenda. Subsequent to the negative reviews, an ABC News poll found that eight out of 10 respondents approved of Clinton's speech, CBS News found that 74 percent of those polled said they had a clear idea of what Clinton stood for compared to just 41 percent before the speech, and Gallup found that eight out of 10 respondents thought Clinton was leading the country in the right direction.Throughout the 1992 election, during which candidates spent more time than ever before responding to questions from ordinary citizens on radio call-in and TV talk shows, the schism between the media's playing-the-game-of-politics line of questioning and the public's how-will-this-affect-us? approach was never more apparent, in Fallows' opinion.Fallows writes that the media's version of "reality" attained surrealism in 1995 when former Senator Bill Bradley announced he would not seek a fourth term representing New Jersey due to frustration with the political process, an open invitation to the press to explore the deep-rooted problems facing the nation through Bradley's considerable expertise. Instead, the response by the press was to focus almost exclusively on what Bradley's decision would mean to the presidential race and party power.A May 1995 Times Mirror survey on "People and the Press and Their Leaders" asked respondents to grade components of the media. Sixty-four percent of those polled gave local TV an A or a B, compared to 51 percent giving network TV an A or B. Only 39 percent gave their local newspaper the highest marks. "We need to know what it is that leads people to offer those ratings," said Robert Drechsel, professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "A plausible explanation is that it's one of the prices that newspapers pay for being more aggressive, for reporting more news that people don't like to hear."The fact of the matter is that the media is elitist to a large degree, but that's not necessarily a bad thing unless it's translated into coverage that loses the content all of us rely on from the media," said Drechsel.Former Journal editor Leonard observes a distinction between broadcast and print journalism that he said was re-enforced by a critical discussion of the media during a class he taught at Marquette University. At the end of the hour-long session, according to Leonard, participants concluded that the unethical and unfair practices that had been railed against pertained to the broadcast media, not print.Others say it would be wise for reporters generally to engage in self-examination."I think these things go in cycles," said James L. Baughman, UW-Madison professor of journalism and mass communication. "Even during Watergate, there was a certain amount of resentment, even in what journalists thought was their finest hour. Journalists sometimes forget that they're not as admired as they think."I think people are probably as contemptuous of institutions as they've ever been in this country," continued Baughman. "The irony is that the press has become an institution for people in a way that it has never been. It's become another foil for people.""I think most people have some reason to be mad at the media," said Leonard. "It may be a little thing -- a grandfather's obituary or granddaughter's engagement announcement didn't get in the paper. Or it may be an editorial view that angers them. I'm mad that I didn't get my New York Times delivered yesterday."The media, sages note, is not supposed to be loved -- it's supposed to be feared and respected. Journalists now must be asking themselves whether diminished fear and respect remain adequate compensation for lack of regard.