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HOWARD ROSENBERG / Television

A Rare Display of News Ethics

April 20, 1998|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Stuart Taylor is a columnist for the National Journal in Washington, D.C. His April 4 column included this passage:

"The iceberg that is about to hit Clinton is personified by Kenneth Starr. He is everything that Clinton is not: honest, principled and utterly inept at spin. But the facts in Starr's report will pop the rivets in Clinton's fragile ship. And as the ship starts sinking, Democrats in Congress will run for the lifeboats."

What has this to do with television?

Flash forward to last Tuesday, a rather extraordinary evening in the life of the nation's smartest television newscast. It was an episode of "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer" like any other on PBS--sober, meaty, in depth.

And then . . .

"An editor's note before we go tonight," announced "NewsHour" anchor and CEO Lehrer. "It's about Stuart Taylor, who's been doing regular and superb reporting on 'The NewsHour' about the Supreme Court."

Taylor, a former New York Times reporter, had been appearing on "The NewsHour" for 5 1/2 years.

"He will no longer be doing such reports, and I wanted you to know why," Lehrer said.

Was an obit coming? Had Taylor died? Had something else happened, perhaps an injury or kidnapping, to prevent him from continuing on "The NewsHour"?

"We have always separated those who report the news from those who analyze or . . . comment on it," Lehrer explained. "I do not give my opinion about anything. Neither do Elizabeth Farnsworth, Margaret Warner, Phil Ponce or any of the other staff correspondents. The same rule applies to reporters from other news organizations who [are] debriefed about a story. We leave the opinions to Mark Shields and Paul Gigot, our historians, our regional commentators and our essayists, as well as other invited and clearly identified commentators and advocates. The distinction is very important to us."

Yet where was the Taylor connection?

"We believe Stuart's recent commentaries in print and other TV programs about the Starr investigation have caused some blurring of the lines and some confusion about his role with us," Lehrer said.

"He may still appear on 'The NewsHour' from time to time, but as a clearly labeled commentator, not as a straight news reporter."

Say what?

You didn't know whether to salute Lehrer or commit him. What was this guy--a dinosaur? Was he a woolly mammoth? Did he have one foot in a tar pit and another in the Mesozoic age?

Quick, introduce him to the '90s, when reporter-commentators are the fashionable hyphenates of television news. They're today, they're happening, they're where it's at in a business whose other commanders seem not to care or worry about blurring traditional lines or confusing viewers by having journalists switch roles unannounced. One second a supposedly dispassionate observer, the next a hanging judge. And don't bother me, boy, about separating the two, about separating straight reporting from opinion or giving a whit about fogging brains. Can't worry about such subtleties. Too many TV mouths to feed. The monster is ravenous for material that passes as information, regardless of its origin.

Well, get real. The "NewsHour" episode was just a tiny blip, but a remarkable one given that Lehrer does, indeed, seem to be something of a pristine minority of one on this admirable soapbox. Good people can disagree about whether he went too far in firing Taylor, who Lehrer agrees was a straight arrow on "NewsHour," but not about the principle appearing to guide his decision.

So give the dinosaur a toast, not the rubber room.

Lehrer's concern about severing commentary from reporting does make him sound like he's from another century, if not another planet. Journalists now wear and switch roles like mad hatters, some less subtly than others. ABC News viewers, for example, get correspondents Cokie Roberts and Sam Donaldson on "World News Tonight, commentators Cokie and Sam on Sunday mornings, when they engage in dueling digs with government and political VIPs on "This Week."

In trying to process that information afterward, it's difficult recalling whether the sources were Cokie and Sam the reporters or the commentators. Or which Wolf Blitzer we heard--the one reporting about the White House for CNN or the one giving his opinion.

Meanwhile, news reporters are booked on talk shows and encouraged to be just a little bit outrageous and to deliver snappy commentaries on topics they cover. And where once only analysis and interpretation were allowed, the tag on the traditional reporter's stand-up is now a license to smirk and be judgmental.

What's a viewer to think?

"I think there is a lot of confusion out there, and it's hurting our business," Lehrer said by phone last week from his "NewsHour" office in Alexandria, Va. "I've been in this business since 1959, and I'm probably behind the times. But I believe in separation of church and state. Our credibility is on the line every time those lines get blurred. I may be the last holdout, but I'm going to be there."

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