The News Media: Are the Foxes and the Chickens in the Same Hen House? - (3/00)
By Ted Marks

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The biggest media merger of all may not be the one between Time Warner and AOL, or the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times deal. No, the biggest media merger could be the one involving the news media and the politicians where the proverbial foxes and chickens are beginning to roost in -- and, in some cases, soil -- the same hen house.

The Time-AOL and LA Times-Chicago Tribune mergers have enormous financial impact on the news industry. But the sudden chumminess between the foxes (politicians) and the chickens (journalists) is much more insidious because it threatens a fundamental value in the news media: its credibility as an independent chronicler of our government and its performance in political, economic, security and diplomatic affairs.

It's happened with a minimum of publicity in this celebrity conscious society of ours, but one of the most unheralded developments in the news media in the last decade or so involves the considerable crossover between the journalists and politicians (and sometimes financiers). Consider:

George Stephanopoulos, a long-time Democratic Party functionary, is reporting on the primary election results for ABC Television News.

Pat Buchanan slips easily from his role as a news commentator into a presidential candidate and then back again every four years or so.

Mike McCurry, the Clinton press secretary, has been hired by CNN to analyze the election results, while William Bennett, the former Secretary of Education, appears all over the media as a commentator on national events.

Paul Begala, a liberal Democratic functionary, and Oliver North, a conservative ideologue, are now appearing together on an MSNBC talk show commentating and in some cases reporting on breaking news as it transpires.

Jeff Greenfield, Mort Zuckerman, Tony Blankley, Chris Matthews, Dee Dee Meyers, Bill Press, Lawrence Kudlow, John McLaughlin, even Tim Russert -- the list is growing longer with each passing year. These are all former political or business functionaries with no practical reporting experience who are now either frequent commentators, paid news consultants or even mainstream journalists who are gaining prominence in the news media. (The news media's use of paid consultants, incidentally, is a practice that should also be scrutinized, as it is just one more indication that our news institutions are buying coverage on any given issue).

All this coziness is not restricted to job migration. The chairman of the Federal Reserve is married to a reporter. The principal State Department spokesman is also married to a reporter -- one who is very prominently covering foreign affairs. Indeed the Secretary of Defense is married to a former talk show host/reporter as well.

What's wrong with all of this? Some will say nothing -- it's healthy to inject new blood into the news media. Any anyway, it's a free country, and politicians have every right to jump ship into the news industry. And certainly prominent leaders and reporters are free to develop their own personal relationships. So long as they keep their personal relationships separate from their professional duties, it's none of our damned business, right?

Political Agendas

All of this is true. But news professionals will understand that the ever expanding migration by the politicians into the news industry is not good for journalism because the public has to wonder whether the news coverage it is getting from newspapers, magazines, television and, increasingly, the Internet, represents the truth. Politicians have agendas, and who is to say that a George Stephanopoulos, a William Bennett or a Paul Begala is not pushing their own agendas when they don their news fedoras with their jaunty press cards.

Indeed, what happens if CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour is taken hostage? Should James Rubin, one of the top officials in the U.S. State Department (and one of Madeline Albright's closest advisers), be in a position where his spouse is subject to threats by terrorists? And carrying that proposition to its ridiculous extreme, should we then provide Christiane Amanpour with Secret Service protection? (This particular matter will soon become moot, in any event as Rubin plans to quit soon and move to London to be with his wife to take care of their new baby).

At this extreme, this is a trivial discussion. But taken from a longer view, these questions highlight a trend which should be reversed if the American news media is to retain its all-important credibility as an independent purveyor of the news.

Until the 1970's, there was long-standing Chinese Wall between the news media and government service. To be sure, reporters frequently became press secretaries, but other than that, most serious reporters would not consider any other substantive role within government or any other special interest group for that matter. And if they did, it was done so with the realization that they were ending their professional journalistic careers, because by making the move to public service, they were effectively barred from resuming their careers as working journalists. Once breached, according to the old school, the wall was impenetrable.

Edward R. Murrow, for example, capped his stellar broadcast career as the director of the Voice of America, but he did so only when he perceived that his usefulness to CBS had come to an end.

For the most part, these journalists chose to end their careers by seeing what the view was like at the other side of a camera before gracefully moving into retirement. Very few returned to the news business after holding public positions.

Talk Show Masquerades

But the more recent breach in the wall in the opposite direction has unleashed a flood of politicians and business personalities moving into the news industry. Yes, many of them are involved in the talk shows, but the fact is that the talk shows have become an increasingly important factor as a source of news to the American public. All these politicians masquerading as journalists has got to have a negative effect on the public's perception of the American news media in general.

One unfortunate aspect of this tendency is to strengthen the perception that there is some sort of political/media elite inside the beltway in Washington, and inside the media institutions located in New York City and Los Angeles). The media has always been surrounded by this elitist perception, of course, but the growth of the political/media fraternity in the last decade has contributed to an expansion of this very unhealthy perception within the public at large.

Certainly, the polls support this view. The news media, alas, is viewed by the public at large as one of the least respected professions, right down there with the politicians and the lawyers.

So what is to be done about this trend towards the integration of journalistic and political personalities?

We have always taken the position that the news media has to right its own listing ship. No one else can do it for the industry. If it is to retain its all-important independence each news institution should be the master of its own fate. And that means senior management in the news industry has got to clean up this mess.

One reason the American news industry has retained any semblance of its independence is that generally its senior management has been drawn from the editorial ranks so that management is fully aware of the importance of the institution's credibility. And, when a family ownership situation exists, each generation has been wise enough to insure that the next generation earns its editorial stripes before assuming the helm. In this way, news organizations have been able to insure that key management positions are filled with men or women who understand that there are certain values within the news industry which must be observed if the news industry is to be both credible and independent.

Recently we have had an ugly example of what happens when a news organization is taken over by non-journalistic managers. The Los Angeles Times lost a large measure of its historical credibility when CEO Mark Willes -- who came from the food industry -- instituted policies that threatened the newspaper's editorial integrity. This became abundantly clear when a plan surfaced under which the newspaper and an advertiser shared profits from a supplemental publication of the newspaper. The Chandler family effectively threw in the towel on Willes' management when it sold the Times-Mirror group, kit 'n caboodle, to the Tribune Company.

(A confession of sorts: we were fans of Willes' creative marketing approach. We thought he had some interesting ideas to strengthen the Times-Mirror's financials. However we did not agree with his idea of teaming marketing managers with editors, as that was clearly a breach of the aforementioned Chinese Wall).

The Values Underlying a Free Press

The situation in Los Angeles, to be sure, is not analogous to the subject at hand -- the foxy politicians roosting in the news industry's hen house -- but it does demonstrate how important it is that managers making key strategic decisions fully understand and appreciate the values underlying a free press. And we would submit that it's time for senior management across the spectrum of the news industry to take a hard look at the trend where politicians are crowding out bona fide journalists in the various news media distribution channels.

The fact of the matter is that politicians don't give a hoot about the credibility of the news business. In fact, most politicians view the news media as an adversarial institution whose objectives in search of the truth are counter to their partisan political goals. So to let the politicians dip even one toe into the newsroom or broadcast studios as reporters or commentators is pure folly.

Why? Well the news profession is unique. It is true that anyone -- even politicians --can decide to become a journalist, but becoming a good journalist is another issue entirely. It takes years of practical experience until a reporter develops the feel towards events as they unfold. A good reporter can smell a phony story a mile away and then resort to his practiced interrogative skills to ferret out the truth. And that is the point of journalism, after all: to track down the truth of any given issue or event so that the reader or viewer can be fully informed of the truth of any given news story.

Politicians and financiers are driven by a different instinct. Their agendas are based on their political beliefs -- liberal, conservative, libertarian, whatever -- and frequently there is little correlation between the truth underlying an issue or event, and the politician's interpretation of an issue, according to his political beliefs.

Certainly, the trend towards endless talk shows on cable networks demonstrates the tendency of the transplants to blow hot air on current issues. In the news business there is a much-maligned phenomenon called a "thumb sucker," which is essentially a long-winded article in which the reporter unleashes his opinion on the subject at hand. These articles do occasionally serve a useful purpose, as analysis, but seasoned editors frequently spiked the thumb suckers as a useless exercise iin vanity. These days, the Cable talk shows are an audio-visual version of the thumb sucker with the transplants, for the most part, bellowing out their opinions of the issue at hand. Worse, the volume of these verbal thumb suckers tends to be on the increase.

(Critics of this column will, rightfully, call this commentary a "thumb sucker" -- but we maintain that our hot air is serving a useful purpose in trying to highlight a negative trend).

Reversing the current trend won't be easy. Circulation, ratings and eyeball numbers may be adversely impacted, and the bottom line may suffer. But sometimes, good managers have to take reasonable risks if they are to successfully protect their franchises.

For despite all the demographic studies, the American public isn't stupid. They recognize good information products and appreciate the value of truthful, impartial news reports, whether they appear in newspapers, magazines, over broadcast channels or on the Web.

In these days of a record stock market highs, huge national growth and general prosperity, it is even more difficult to consciously take the high road. After all, there's a lot of money to be made in a surging economy, and there is a general reluctance to rock the boat. However, in general the American economy is cyclical in nature, and sooner or later the boom times will end. Then it will be absolutely crucial to deliver top-notch news to a general public under considerable stress.

We don't think there's a professional journalist in the American news media that is satisfied with the current state of the industry. Now is the time to kick the politicians off the bandwagon, and generally clean house.

 

Ted Marks is president of Marks & Frederick Associates, LLC. Want to comment on this article?  Submit your comments to our Foxes and Chickens discussion forum.

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