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Media Must Become Introspective, Experts Say

Ethics should top the journalism agenda to counter public cynicism, according to observers.

June 06, 2003|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

The dean of UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism compared it to a Greek tragedy. The Poynter Institute's Bob Steele likened it to an earthquake's "aftershock" that is "reaching across the land." Several other observers decried the institutional hubris and "arrogance of power" that led to Thursday's bloodletting at what many consider the nation's most prestigious newspaper.

As professional journalists and media watchers sized up the effect of the resignations of New York Times Executive Editor Howell Raines and Managing Editor Gerald Boyd, opinions varied about the causes and consequences. But there was generally sober agreement on one point: It could be open season on the journalism business for some time to come.

Steele, director of the ethics program at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Fla., said he feared the dual resignations could furnish more ammunition to "cynics who believe that journalism is no darn good anyhow."

"It's not to suggest that we should ignore weaknesses or faults in journalism, but it saddens me to think that many cynics would dismiss journalism and its value to our society and to democracy," he said.

In Thursday's postmortems of Raines' reign, and the events that led to his resignation, certain themes were repeated. It was now time for journalism to put its house in order, several industry professionals said.

"There can't be and shouldn't be an editor or a broadcast news executive anyplace in this country who isn't saying, 'Wow, I really need to pay attention to how I run my newspaper or my broadcast shop,' " Steele said.

Others emphasized that newspapers always must be sure to maintain the highest ethical standards, even under intense competitive pressure from the 24-hour news cycles of TV and the Internet. Hiring ombudsmen to monitor editorial content and holding staff discussions on ethical practices might be good ideas, they suggested.

Still others said that the red flags had been waving in the Times' newsroom even before two of its reporters, rising young would-be star Jayson Blair and Pulitzer Prize winner Rick Bragg, resigned over issues of ethics improprieties in recent weeks.

Loren Ghiglione, dean of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., cited the departure of a number of well-regarded journalists from the Times in recent years as a sign that some reporters and editors may have been chafing under Raines' polarizing leadership.

"There was so many levels of things happening," said Orville Schell, dean of UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. "And I think it just all built up to a point where Howell did the honorable and courageous thing. He's smart and I think he realized there was no rebirth for him and little chance of him being able to fix it. There's an element of Greek tragedy about all of this that I think also had to do with great ambition."

If Raines had become the chief protagonist in that rapidly unfolding drama, Boyd was his reluctant understudy. One top Times executive stepping down was dramatic enough, several commentators said, but two was astonishing -- although the industry had been buzzing with speculation about such an outcome.

"I can't remember when we've seen the double resignation," said Geneva Overholser, a former New York Times editorial board member, a former editor of the Des Moines Register and now a teacher at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. "And the reality is far more shocking than the gabbing about it."

What happens in this drama's next act probably will depend in large part on Joseph Lelyveld, who has been cast in the odd double role of Raines' predecessor and, now, as his interim successor.

The choice of Lelyveld is a fine one, Overholser said. "We've all seen that he had a strong leadership stint at the Times, he's a man of moderate and temperate style, and I think he's a thoughtful man with enormous respect for the traditions of the Times." She described the handing over of power as "a good step" that will "calm the waters."

But Bryce Nelson, who teaches at USC's Annenberg School for Communication, said Lelyveld would have his work cut out for him.

"Lelyveld is a more respected person in some ways, but the editor of the New York Times has to be very strong in weeding out the elements in diminishment of ethical standards that have been allowed to develop over the decades," Nelson said.

The Times' problems, Nelson added, show "that ethics have to be at the top of the agenda for news organizations, it needs to be discussed, it needs to be minded. Many news organizations don't have written codes. Many of the ones that do have written codes don't pay much attention to them."

Poynter's Steele also stressed that whatever Raines and Boyd's shortcomings in handling recent problems, some ethics and oversight failures in the Times' institutional culture predated their management.

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