ASPEN, COLO. — Some of us journalists have sinned, oh Lord Public, master of our universe. We beg of you to forgive us our press passes.
How did we sin? Let me count the ways:
1) By telling you things that we knew were not so;
2) By telling you things we believed to be so, but had not substantiated;
3) By telling you things that were so, but had been acquired by questionable means.
Why does there, suddenly, seem to be so much journalistic sinning? Because the public seems to be turned off on the media. Because some journalists who have grown up in the television era with a dulled sense of reality seek shortcuts to fame and fortune. Because of the pressure of corporate media bosses for ammunition in the war for ratings and circulation.
The first sin--the outright hoax--is easiest to condemn, because few of us have the talent for it. Stephen Glass, master of the telling anecdote, concocted all or part of some 25 articles in the New Republic in less than a year. Patricia Smith created interesting but imaginary characters in her Boston Globe column.
They follow in the tradition of Janet Cooke, whose Pulitzer Prize was taken away after the discovery that her wrenching Washington Post series about a child drug addict came entirely from her imagination. I have a lingering sense of regret about real talent that went wrong.
Our second sin is far more complicated because of the sensation that something is possibly true, but is lacking in substantiation. An investigative unit of the Cable News Network alleged that the U.S. Army had used sarin nerve gas against U.S. deserters in Laos. First Amendment attorney Floyd Abrams, brought in by CNN to investigate the investigation, concluded that the allegation was "insupportable." "Unsupported" may more accurately reflect the sense of his report.
(In the interest of full disclosure: I worked for CNN for six years in its early days. I know and admire Peter Arnett, the correspondent who appeared on the newsmagazine show. I am a long-time friend and onetime client of Abrams.)
The CNN episode goes to the heart of how professionalism can go astray in television. We start with the fact that CNN, worried about its ratings, had made a considerable investment in its new "Newsstand" program and was looking for an opening-night blockbuster. That need encouraged producers to work for months on reports and rumors about the use of nerve gas.
Authentication by interviews proved hard to come by. Then the television technique of making things look more definite than they are took over. Some may remember how NBC staged a car explosion. ABC simulated a rendezvous of a suspected American spy with his KGB handler. CBS got into trouble with Congress in 1970 for selective editing of an interview with a Pentagon official for a documentary, "The Selling of the Pentagon." CBS President Frank Stanton narrowly escaped a citation for contempt of Congress for refusing to turn over the "outtakes" of the interview.
In the CNN case, Abrams had access to all the interviews. Having read his report, I agree that strenuous excerpting was done that neglected or minimized contrasting views. I have some sympathy for the process, having myself, as television correspondent, often striven to get an interviewee to say what I needed him to say. But CNN went beyond the bounds. For example, the aging Adm. Thomas Moorer, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was clearly pushed for hours to talk about an operation he didn't remember or never knew about.
The television imperative also led inexorably to the unmaking of Arnett. There is a line in television between anchors, who add luster by reading from TelePrompTer scripts written by others, and reporters, who voice stories they have covered. For this opening night, Arnett was asked to contribute his association with Vietnam and his distinguished career as a reporter and front for a story he had little to do with.
I know several reporters, including myself, who have declined to read scripts they did not write. Arnett accommodated his bosses and, for having done so, was reprimanded.
Our third sin is the investigative story that is accurate and may perform a real public service, but raises questions about how the information was obtained.
In 1992, ABC's "Prime Time Live," with Diane Sawyer, carried a devastating report on the sale of tainted meat and other unsanitary practices in a Food Lion supermarket. No question was raised about the accuracy of the report, but Food Lion sued for trespass with hidden cameras and because two ABC staffers had obtained jobs in Food Lion by lying on their applications. Without ever seeing the report, a jury awarded Food Lion $5.5 million (later reduced by the judge).
That a TV network should be punished for the kind of expose that won plaudits for Upton Sinclair sent a chill through the whole profession. It seemed to reflect the way the American public has been turned off to what it perceives as the self-serving arrogance of the "the media."