The Four Deadly Sins of Journalism


Ken spoke at the Carnegie Council for Ethics and International Affairs' Books for Breakfast at the Merrill House in New York, discussing his recently released book, Backstory: The Business of News. In his address, which was followed by a question and answer session (see full transcript), Ken said:

This morning I want to explore, as Backstory does, four of what I consider the deadliest sins of journalism:

1) Synergy.

What synergy means, at least to businesspeople, is that one plus one equals four. That is to say, if we can get all parts of our business and our divisions to work together, the whole will be much greater than the individual parts. We can get the news division to promote our entertainment shows by having guests from NBC on the Today show. We can boost the ratings of entertainment shows and also the ratings of news shows.

The same in the music business, the same in all these businesses. That's the notion behind synergy: If you own an entertainment division, you could produce the shows, favor your own shows, put them on the air, and make much more money, particularly when you sell them in syndication.

How do we see synergy at work in the news business? We saw it at work, for instance, at CBS with the Michael Jackson interview on the news program 60 Minutes. CBS had a deal to produce a Michael Jackson special, and suddenly Jackson appears for his first exclusive interview after the charges against him had been lodged, on 60 Minutes. 60 Minutes says that they have no idea whether any extra money was paid. "We certainly didn't pay any extra money." But Michael Jackson's people say they got over a million dollars. Obviously that's not good for CBS News and its credibility.

We saw it before that. All the television network news divisions bid for Jessica Lynch's story, and in the bids they made to her lawyers, they said that if Jessica Lynch appears on the Today show, we will talk to the entertainment division about doing a special on her, and to the book division about doing a book. We'll get all the divisions to synergize their efforts and help Jessica Lynch. It may help other divisions, but whether it would help the news division is a big question.

One of the reasons the Tribune Company was able to purchase the Times-Mirror Company that owns the Los Angeles Times is that they had a special issue of their magazine at the L.A. Times that was sponsored, without the readers' knowledge, by the Staples Center. All the journalism was about the Staples Center and yet the reader was unaware that the Staples Center was the sponsor of this special issue of the Los Angeles Times Magazine. When the story came out, the head of the company, Mark Willis, lost his job, as did the editor of the L.A. Times. Again, the question of credibility and what impact it had on journalism.

2) The clash between the business culture and the news culture.

Teamwork, synergy, cost control, borderless company or lowering the walls are all legitimate objectives for the people who run these giant companies. But the culture of journalism is very different. It's an individual, not a team culture. You go out as a reporter and get your story, and you may have a camera crew, a producer, an editor, but it's a very individualistic culture—a culture that does not pride itself on teamwork or cooperation but rather on an adversarial relationship with people. It's a culture that says, "We don't want to lower the walls behind divisions because we don't want the advertising department to come into the newsroom. We don't want the advertising department to say to us, 'If we had a favorable restaurant review of this restaurant, they would increase their advertising for us.'" That's exactly the last thing a journalist wants to hear.

The culture clash between the business side and the news side is profound and not often discussed.

For instance, there was talk last year about merging CNN and ABC to save, they said, $200 million. From a businessperson's point of view, "What a great idea! I just increased my bottom line by $200 million. That's fabulous." But what is the impact of that on you, the consumer of news? You now get not two sources of news, CNN and ABC, but a combined voice.

And what is the impact of that on the quality of the news reporting? Will it be better? In order to get the savings they want, you've got to close bureaus overseas. No network has more than six bureaus overseas, and CBS at one point had about twenty.

When the public complains after 9/11, "Why didn't we know about the threat from Islam?" one of the reasons they didn't know is that the press wasn't telling them about it. You could also accept complexity and go one step further and ask, "Why wasn't the public interested enough in that?" But, nevertheless, we should not be in the popularity business, which is another cultural imperative of journalists. We should be in the business of telling people what we think they ought to know, and if we don't do that, then we're not a profession.

The idea of a professional is to say, "We think this is important," and that's what we're trained to be able to sort out for the public in a democracy. Another word for credibility, in my judgment, is trust. To do our job we need trust from our readers or viewers, but we also need trust from the people we interview, because if we don't have it, they won't talk to us.

While doing a recent New Yorker piece on the Bush administration's media relations, I was stunned at how hostile they are to the press. I say "stunned" within a context. I've done a piece like this on the president and the press in most administrations over the last 20-some-odd years, and one thing that is evergreen is that a president and his team feel that the press hates them or is interested in "gotcha" journalism or in conflict, hence is not serious in some fundamental way. So tension between the White House and the press is not new.

But what is new with the Bush administration is that it acts out its hostility toward the press and its feeling that it doesn't have to talk to us. And it goes even further. This administration doesn't treat the press as if it's a neutral referee, as if we have an obligation to sort out what's going on for the readers or viewers in a democracy. Rather, they treat us as if we're a special interest that is preoccupied with things like "gotcha" headlines, horserace journalism. They aren't entirely wrong.

When you look at Bush's record, one of the ways you measure how they deal with the press is the number of press conferences he has held: eleven in his term. His father held about seventy in a comparable period of time. Ronald Reagan held more than seventy. Bill Clinton held thirty-six.

Bush has held fewer press conferences by a factor of at least three than any President in modern times, including Nixon and Eisenhower. He feels that he doesn't have to talk to the press, doesn't have to accept follow-up questions. The administration argues, "We do talk to the press. We have answered 2,460 questions since he was elected." But most of these questions are raised at photo ops, when the press is ushered into the Oval Office maybe three times a week and allowed to ask roughly three questions. The first two always go to the wire services by Bush's edict. They're interested in, "What about the American soldier killed in Iraq today?" They're interested in the headlines, the little snippets—such as when Bush says, "Well, it's a tragedy and I feel bad."

"Thank you, Mr. President."

"Thanks for coming into my office. You may leave now."

You don't get detailed questions about how policy was made because those are exactly the questions that Bush does not want to talk about.

3) Hubris.

Let's look at some examples. Start with Howell Raines and the New York Times. He was an excellent editor who took charge of the Times five days before 9/11, did an absolutely brilliant job by using the strategy, "Let's flood the zone. Let's seize this story and dominate this story." In that six-month aftermath of 9/11, the Times was probably as brilliant a newspaper as has ever been published in the world. It was just extraordinary—and not just articles like "Portraits of Grief," but also the detailed coverage in the International Report—that was excellent.

But as you watched Howell Raines during that period, you also saw that, like a figure in Greek mythology, his virtues became his vices. In his autocratic way of demanding that the story be done, he had only one speed, and he continued to keep his foot on the accelerator, which alienated people and made for a lot of unhappiness.

If people think of themselves as professionals, they want to think that they're making decisions. But if the autocrat and chief is making all the decisions, if he does not have the humility to ask people questions but rather tells them the answer, you feel demeaned.

Howell Raines was a brilliant editorial page editor, but his virtues became his vices, and his greatest vice was the vice of hubris, the vice of not listening. What does it take to be a good journalist? A reasonably intelligent person to be able to sort things out, a clear writer so that people can understand what it is that they've sorted out, and a reasonably careful person so that the facts are correct.

More important than all of those qualities is humility, which allows you to ask questions and to listen to the answers. We're not like the people who appear on cable television to bloviate. Sometimes I have the television on, and wonder, "What do these people do all day?" They seem to be sitting and waiting to be called to go on television to just announce opinions.

You watch a show like Capital Gang. They'll have the Speaker of the House or the Senate minority or majority leader on there with the four panelists, and they treat the guest as an accessory: "We'll get to you in a second. We have our opinions to express."

In my chapter "Fee Speech," I interview people like Chris Matthews and forty or so other of these bloviators and ask them the same question: "What are your lecture fees and what organizations have you spoken to?" It's quite hilarious, because the same people who complain about politicians act exactly like the politicians they complain about, saying, "No comment." It was fun to put them on the spot.

I have another chapter about Don Imus called "The Don," describing how people come on his show trying to promote their books, and then suddenly they're being asked to make donations to the Imus Ranch, and then suddenly Imus seems very pleased and starts promoting their books. It's all a terrible game that undermines the humility we need to do our job.

4) Bias. The debate is skewed wrong when we talk about bias. If you listen to Fox News, they say there's a liberal bias that dominates. If you read The Nation, they'll say the bias that dominates is a conservative bias: Wall Street Journal editorial page, Fox News.

There is such a thing as a liberal bias. There is such a thing as a conservative bias. But the dominant bias is a market bias. It's a bias in favor of conflict, of "gotcha" journalism, of process-polling stories, of ratings and circulation. And this bias flows naturally from the business entities that own these journalistic institutions. They're doing what the wasp does: "That's what I do."

The most interesting thing I discovered when writing the Bush piece for the New Yorker was that his staff, curiously, made the same analysis of what's wrong with the press as, say, The Nation or Al Franken. They argued that it's a market-driven bias; the press are people who are not interested in substance. It's interesting that the right and left wings would come together in this analysis.

What's the solution? I don't have one. As journalists, we have to communicate with the businesspeople who own our journalistic institutions, and try to quantify ratings, circulation and profit margin. Journalism is not easily quantifiable.

We have to talk about credibility. If you were CBS, you can have a private conversation with your corporate parents at Viacom and ask, "What damage do we do to our credibility or our brand by this controversy?" Don't you think we hurt it? And don't you think USA Today is thinking after the scandal they're going through with one of their star reporters who made up things, that this has harmed the brand and the credibility? And don't you think the Staples Center at the L.A. Times, the story I already mentioned, harmed their brand?

Somehow we have to figure out ways to quantify. When they say, "We want you to double your profit margin," we have to come back and say, "Fine, but that means no investigative stories; that means closing our state capital bureau, because we can't afford it. Which option would you prefer?" Somehow we've got to do a better job of crossing this cultural divide and communicating to the people who own us.

It's easier at places like the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Washington Post, or the Wall Street Journal, where you have publishers who share your value system. It's much harder at places like CBS, ABC, Gannett and the 1,200 radio stations owned by Clear Channel Communications.

There are reasons for me to be optimistic. The Internet is one of them; technology is another. The ability of writers to self-publish because of the Internet, because of technology is very exciting. Technology is opening up governments around the world. But I've given you a speech that dwelled more on the reasons for pessimism in my business.

So how do I come out? I come out, as Dr. Shulman did, with a bumper sticker that would say, "Accept Complexity" and with one of my favorite quotations, from F. Scott Fitzgerald, that the mark of an intelligent person is someone who has the ability to keep two or more disparate thoughts in mind at the same time and still function. That's me.

Read the full transcript.